Oct 27, 2006

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today lauded the U.S. Justice Department’s cancellation of a proposal for “single-faith” prison programs.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department said it was seeking prison rehabilitation programs for six federal prisons intended to “facilitate personal transformation of the participating inmates through their own spirituality and faith.” The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ solicitation for the programs also stated it would ask potential bidders how their approach would “foster growth” of inmates’ “spiritual development.”

In an April 19 letter, Americans United urged the federal government to scuttle the constitutionally flawed plan.

Yesterday the Justice Department announced it was cancelling the solicitation for the religion-based rehabilitation programs.

“Publicly funded rehabilitation programs should be open to all inmates, not just those of one particular faith,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “I’m frankly amazed that the Justice Department ever thought they could get away with such a patently unconstitutional scheme.

 “The government,” Lynn continued, “should protect the free exercise rights of inmates, but it should never try to coerce prisoners on matters of faith. The separation of church and state forbids the use of public funds for religious indoctrination or proselytism.”

AU’s letter argued that the solicitation for single-faith prison ministry programs would violate the First Amendment because it promoted religious programs over secular ones, created preferences for instruction in single-faith over multi-faith programming, appeared to be tailored to elicit a solicitation from a specific prison ministry program and contained no safeguards to ensure that government funds would not be used to support religious activity.

Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser wrote that the federal government solicitation seemed tailored to a program offered by InnerChange, a fundamentalist Christian prison ministry program run by Prison Fellowship Ministries. A federal judge ruled earlier this year that InnerChange could not be supported by public funds because of its pervasively sectarian nature.

“The proposal for religious rehabilitation programs was constitutionally flawed,” said Luchenitser. “The move to cut it was probably based on a realization that it could not fly. The federal government should offer all inmates, regardless of their religious background, sound recovery programs.”

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.