Dec 03, 2007

A federal appeals court today ruled that tax funding of an evangelical Christian rehabilitation program at an Iowa state prison violates the separation of church and state and must end.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that government support for the InnerChange Freedom Initiative at Newton Correctional Facility -- a program operated by Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries -- advances religious indoctrination at state expense.  Americans United brought the litigation against InnerChange on behalf of inmates, their families and taxpayers.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, hailed the ruling.

"This is an extremely important decision," said Lynn. "Government officials have no business paying for religious indoctrination and awarding special treatment and benefits to those willing to embrace one religious perspective. 

"Government should not single out a particular religion for special treatment," Lynn continued. "You simply cannot give government funds to a religious group for its evangelism program."

Added AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, "This ruling is a major setback for the White House’s ‘Faith-Based Initiative.’  It reaffirms that the government must ensure that public funds are not used for religious instruction, and that the government must not aid programs that discriminate based on religion.”

Americans United presented evidence that inmates who took part in InnerChange were given better treatment and perks that were not available to others, including better housing and expedited access to classes required for parole.  During its investigation of the program, AU discovered that InnerChange was saturated with evangelical Christianity and that staff members were frequently hostile to other faiths.

At trial, inmates testified that they were pressured to convert to evangelical Christianity, and that the beliefs of Roman Catholics and other faiths were ridiculed. The court record showed that non-Christians were frequently referred to as "unsaved," "lost," "pagan" and "sinful" by InnerChange staff. The program required staffers to abide by an evangelical statement of faith.

In a unanimous decision joined by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the appeals court upheld a lower court ruling issued on June 2, 2006, except that it reversed a portion of the lower court ruling that required InnerChange to return funds it received prior to June 2006.  InnerChange will still need to return funds it received after the June 2006 ruling.

The decision states: "In the present case, plaintiffs demonstrated . . . that the InnerChange program resulted in inmate enrollment in a program dominated by Bible study, Christian classes, religious revivals, and church services."

The opinion concluded that the state’s “direct aid to InnerChange violated the Establishment clauses of the United States and Iowa Constitutions.”

Corrections officials in other states have considered adopting InnerChange. Lynn said today's ruling should bring those plans to a screeching halt.

The lead trial counsel in the case was Americans United’s Senior Litigation Counsel Luchenitser.  The trial team also included AU Litigation Counsel Heather L. Weaver and Iowa constitutional law attorney Dean Stowers.  Luchenitser also presented the oral argument to the appeals court on behalf of the plaintiffs.