Feb 12, 2003

A government-backed program that seeks to rehabilitate Iowa prison inmates by converting them to fundamentalist Christianity violates the U.S. Constitution, Americans United for Separation of Church and State charged in a pair of federal lawsuits filed today.

Americans United is challenging state promotion of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a program run by Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship. In the lawsuits, AU charges that InnerChange constitutes a merger of government with religion. The program indoctrinates participants in religion, discriminates in hiring staff on religious grounds and gives inmates special privileges if they enroll.

The InnerChange program is currently in operation in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota and Texas, and a similar program is under consideration for use in the federal prison system as well. President George W. Bush and other advocates of "faith-based" social services have praised InnerChange as a model program.

But Americans United insists the arrangement is deeply flawed.

"This program is one of the most egregious violations of church-state separation I've ever seen," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "It literally merges religion and government.

"It is unconscionable for the government to give preferential treatment to prisoners based solely on their willingness to undergo religious conversion and indoctrination," said Lynn. "Officials should use public funds to help rehabilitate all prison inmates, not just those who are willing to convert to fundamentalist Christianity."

Continued Lynn, "Sadly, President Bush sees nothing wrong with an arrangement like this and indeed wants to spread it across all social services, affecting all Americans. It's a dangerous agenda that must be stopped."

Americans United filed suit on behalf of Jerry D. Ashburn, an inmate at Newton Correctional Facility in Newton, Iowa, who objects to the program's religious tenets. A separate suit was filed on behalf of family and friends of Newton inmates who also object to the sectarian emphasis of the program.

Both lawsuits assert that InnerChange is based entirely on fundamentalist Christianity. InnerChange materials describe the program as "a revolutionary, Christ-centered, values-based pre-release program supporting prison inmates through their spiritual and moral transformation" and says it is "explicitly Christ-centered."

In addition, InnerChange openly discriminates in hiring staff on religious grounds, despite its support from public funds. All employees must be Christians who are willing to sign a statement of faith that reflects fundamentalist Christian dogma.

InnerChange staff do not hesitate to discuss the group's sectarian goals. Jack Cowley, national director of operations for InnerChange, told The Non-Profit Times in 2002 that the program seeks to convert inmates to fundamentalism. "From the state's point of view, the mission is to reduce recidivism," Cowley said. "From a ministry point of view, our mission is to save souls for Christ."

The lawsuits also note that inmates in the InnerChange program receive much better treatment than inmates in the general population. InnerChange participants, for example, have keys to their cells and have access to private bathrooms. They are allowed to make free telephone calls to family members and are given access to big-screen televisions, computers and art supplies. These benefits are not extended to general-population inmates.

Newton officials fund InnerChange in part by charging general-population inmates and their family members exorbitant rates for telephone calls. The profits are then used to pay for 40 to 50 percent of InnerChange's costs. Housing for the program is also completely subsidized with public funds.

This unusual funding mechanism means that all inmates and their family members and friends who wish to communicate by telephone are forced to support InnerChange. Americans United expects other plaintiffs to join the cases as they get under way. AU attorneys urged Newton inmates (or those who pay into the phone fund on their behalf) to contact AU. Persons who are interested in counseling prison inmates in Iowa and are qualified to do so, but do not meet InnerChange's religious criteria for employment, also may be eligible to join the case.

"These cases have substantial implications for President Bush's faith-based initiative," said Ayesha Khan, Americans United's legal director. "The president says it's okay to use public dollars for religious discrimination, and we say it's not. These cases will be among the first to determine how far the government can go in funding religious programs."

In addition to AU's Khan, other attorneys involved in the lawsuits include AU Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser and local counsel Dean Stowers, a constitutional lawyer with the Des Moines law firm of Rosenberg, Stowers & Morse.

The cases, Ashburn v. Mapes and Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, are pending in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.