Prison ministry program called too religious

ST. LOUIS – The need for states to help inmates turn their lives around was a central but undisputed part of a case before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis Feb. 13.

But the question before the judges, including retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, was whether it violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution to use a faith-based approach to facilitating prisoners’ turnaround.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State had sued Prison Fellowship Ministries and the state of Iowa, charging that the ministries’ InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a faith-based prisoner rehabilitation program, violated the separation of church and state.

A federal judge ruled against the program last June and ordered it shut down. U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt of Des Moines, Iowa, also ordered the program to reimburse the state for payments it made to cover 35 percent of the costs of the program.

The prison initiative includes Bible studies, general education classes, life skills workshops and job training. The inmates are matched with mentors who help them develop a plan when they are released.

Anthony Picarello, an attorney for Prison Fellowship Ministries, told the appeals court panel that Pratt’s decision, if upheld, “would deter any faith-based contractor and have an overall chilling effect, with fewer prisoners rehabilitated.”

According to Americans United’s complaint, the prisoners in the program are involved in an intensive, evangelical, biblically based instruction from a Christian fundamentalist viewpoint; the prisoners who participate receive privileges denied to nonparticipants and are treated unfairly for leaving the program; only Christians are permitted to serve on the staff of InnerChange; and the state pays a portion of the salaries of InnerChange employees.

An attorney for the state, Gordon Allen, said the program is effective in lowering the rate at which released inmates re-enter prison. He said the program is voluntary and that prison staff see a difference in those who participate.

In response to questioning from Justice O’Connor, Mr. Allen said inmates have choices of other programs to attend, though they may have to transfer to other prisons to take part in those.

In questioning the Americans United attorney, Alex Luchenitser, the judges indicated that they felt the trial judge was off course in concentrating so much of his ruling on the nature of evangelical Christians.

Judge Duane Benton, noting there is a waiting list for the program, quizzed the attorney about his view of its voluntary nature, noting that inmates have the right to free exercise of religion.

The Americans United attorney said the program seeks to convert people. “This is not just pervasively religious, it’s wholly religious,” he said. “I think it’s wrong for a state to spend money for a program that’s not appropriate for people of all faiths.”

The attorneys in the case disagreed about the effectiveness of the InnerChange program, which cites an 8 percent rate of recidivism. Others state that InnerChange’s figures are skewed by the fact that inmates are not counted until six months after they leave prison and only if they have followed InnerChange guidelines. Typical recidivism rates are much higher.
Also disputed was whether the program disparaged Catholics. InnerChange said an anti-Catholic incident did occur but was the result of an instructor, who is no longer with the program, acting out of line.

Mike Earley, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship Ministries, told the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, that the court case “is part of the broad assault against Christian organizations.”

The program is considered evangelical in orientation, but it is ecumenical in spirit, said Mr. Earley, a member of St. Paul on the Lake Catholic Parish in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and president of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s endowment fund.

As a founder of the National Fellowship of Catholic Men and a Knight of Malta, he said, he was saddened by the accusation of an anti-Catholic bias. “If we find out anyone is bigoted and not in tune with our principles of unity we ask them to leave our program,” he said.

The Iowa judge’s decision was “so biased and angry against not only Christians but against devout Christians,” he said.

Mr. Earley said the only programs that have worked on a major scale with inmates are those that are faith-based.

“When you find you have dignity and worth as an individual because you’re made in the image and likeness of Christ, it’s a life-changing experience for people,” he said. “You get the freedom to break the chain of whatever put you in prison.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.