- Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Federal Court Strikes Down Tax Funding of Iowa Prison Program

Ruling Is A Sharp Rebuke To President George W. Bush's 'Faith-Based' Initiative

A federal court today struck down an evangelical Christian program operating in an Iowa state prison, a ruling Americans United hailed as a serious blow to President George W. Bush’s “faith-based” initiative.

U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt ordered an end to the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a sectarian program sponsored by Charles W. Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries. Pratt also ordered that InnerChange reimburse the state of Iowa more than $1.5 million.

Pratt ruled that the program clearly violates church-state separation by promoting evangelical Christianity at state expense.

“For all practical purposes, the state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one its penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation, i.e., InnerChange employees, authority to control the spiritual, emotional, and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates,” wrote Pratt. “There are no adequate safeguards present, nor could there be, to ensure that state funds are not being directly spent to indoctrinate Iowa inmates.”

Elsewhere Pratt observed, “The level of religious indoctrination supported by state funds and other state support in this case in comparison to other programs treated in the case law…is extraordinary.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn hailed the ruling. Lynn noted that President George W. Bush has supported Prison Fellowship and other forms of tax funding of religion under his so-called “faith-based” initiative.

“There is no way to interpret this decision as anything but a body blow to so-called faith-based initiatives,” Lynn said. “Tax funds cannot underwrite conversion efforts.”

Continued Lynn, “The bottom line is government has no business paying for religious indoctrination and conversion programs in prisons or any other tax-funded institution.”

Lynn said in light of this ruling, religious leaders need to be especially wary of the pitfalls of government funding. He noted that InnerChange has been ordered to repay the funds it spent for a program that the court said should have been recognized as unconstitutional.

“Church leaders who take faith-based funding may find that they’ve made an expensive misjudgment if their ‘faith-based’ funding is challenged,” Lynn said.

Americans United sponsored the litigation in the Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries case. The legal challenge, brought on behalf of several inmates at Newton Correctional Facility and their families, was argued by Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser.

Luchenitser noted that InnerChange inmates received special benefits solely because they were willing to submit to the type of Christian evangelism promoted by Prison Fellowship.

“The government has no business treating some inmates better than others on the basis of religious belief,” Luchenitser said.

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.