Prison program affirmed as unconstitutional


A U.S. Appeals Court upheld a ruling that a Christian-based prison rehabilitation program is unconstitutional.

A coalition of religious and civic leaders devoted to the separation of church and state filed a suit on behalf of inmates, their families and taxpayers. They alleged that the program used by the Newton Correctional Facility in Iowa, which must be completed before inmates are eligible for parole, was unconstitutional.

On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis affirmed a lower court ruling in the case of Americans United v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, although it reversed the court’s ruling that Prison Fellowship had to reimburse the government the $1.5 million it had received from the prison.

The program “used taxpayer money to pay for what one of the defendants described as a ’24-hour-a-day, Christ-centered, biblically based program that promotes personal transformation of prisoners through the power of the Gospel,’ ” said Deborah Lauter, the Anti-Defamation League’s director of civil rights. The ADL filed an amicus brief in the case, as did the American Jewish Congress.

Marc Stern, the AJCongress’ general counsel, said that had the prison offered a variety of programs, even if some were religious, they would not have been deemed unconstitutional because inmates would have had a choice.

The decision was also praised by the Orthodox Union, which generally has been supportive to lower the church-state wall. “The Orthodox Union has long been a champion of sensibly structured government support for faith-based social welfare and educational programs,” said Nathan Diament, the director of the O.U.’s office in Washington. “From our perspective, a necessary constitutional element to structure such support is for beneficiaries/participants in such programs to have their religious liberty protected by having genuine independent choice among programs providing the particular service.”

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