A federal court has ruled that officials at a Virginia jail violated church-state separation when they created a special wing for Christian inmates called the Life Learning Program (LLP).

Inmates in the wing in Riverside Regional Jail, which was informally known as the “God Pod,” received some perks that weren’t available to others. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), representing several Muslim inmates, sued over the issue last year. Officials at the jail dismantled the wing after the Young v. Newton lawsuit was filed, but the case continued because several other issues were raised in the lawsuit.

“The LLP was unquestionably based on Christian principles and the Bible, which … is a Christian book,” wrote U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga. “The administration of that program demonstrated a preference for Christianity over other religions and extended benefits to those who subscribed to that preference. Any secular purpose of the LLP, such as to teach skills related to intellectual, emotional, spiritual, relational, occupational, and financial success, was pursued through religious, specifically Christian, teachings, which had the primary effect of advancing Christianity at the Riverside Regional Jail.”

Inmates taking part in the program were overseen by a chaplain provided by a private group called the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry. The group says its purpose is to “reach every inmate in the world with the Good News of Jesus Christ that they may become growing disciples.”

No other religious programs were offered at the jail, which is located in Chesterfield County, Va.

In a press statement, CAIR hailed the ruling.

“We welcome the Virginia federal court’s ruling and hope that it will serve as a reminder to correctional facilities nationwide that are operating God Pods of their own that it is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause to officially endorse Christianity over all other religious faiths,” said CAIR National Litigation Director Lena Masri. 

CAIR Senior Litigation Attorney Gadeir Abbas added, “People incarcerated in this country do not lose their right to practice their religion. The law prevents the kind of disfavor forced on Muslims at Riverside Regional Jail by this effort to establish religiously segregated spaces at the jail.”  

In 2007, Americans United successfully sued officials at a prison in Iowa to put an end to a similar program that gave Christian inmates special privileges and treatment.

The Iowa program, InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), was a fundamentalist program run by Charles W. Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries. In court, Americans United proved that IFI is saturated with fundamentalist dogma and that inmates taking part in it were given special perks not available to others.

A federal judge ruled tax-funded support of the program unconstitutional in 2006. In December 2007, an appeals court unanimously affirmed that decision. A three-judge panel of the appeals court – all Republican appointees, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – ruled that IFI cannot be supported with government funds.

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The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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