Faith-based prison program questioned

Judge calls taxpayer funding of religious initiative unconstitutional

December 10, 2006|By New York Times News Service

Life was different in Unit E at the state prison outside Newton, Iowa.

The toilets and sinks -- white porcelain ones, like at home -- were in a separate bathroom with partitions for privacy. In many Iowa prisons, metal toilet-and-sink combinations squat beside the bunks, to be used without privacy, a few feet from cellmates.

The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting days.

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder version of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress. The program -- which grew from a project started in 1997 at a Texas prison with the support of George W. Bush, who was governor at the time -- says on its Web site that it seeks "to `cure' prisoners by identifying sin as the root of their problems" and showing inmates "how God can heal them permanently, if they turn from their sinful past."

One Catholic inmate, Michael A. Bauer, left the program after a year, mostly because he felt the program staff and volunteers were hostile toward his faith. "My No.1 reason for leaving the program was that I personally felt spiritually crushed," he testified at a court hearing last year. "I just didn't feel good about where I was and what was going on."

For Robert W. Pratt, chief judge of the federal courts in the Southern District of Iowa, this all added up to an unconstitutional use of taxpayers' money for religious indoctrination, as he ruled in June in a lawsuit challenging the arrangement.

Since 2000, courts have cited more than a dozen programs for having unconstitutionally used taxpayer money to pay for religious activities or evangelism aimed at prisoners, recovering addicts, job-seekers, teenagers and children.

Nevertheless, the programs are proliferating. For example, Corrections Corp. of America, the nation's largest prison management company, with 65 facilities and 71,000 inmates under its control, is substantially expanding its religion-based curriculum and now has 22 institutions offering residential programs similar to the one in Iowa. And the federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs at least five multifaith programs at its facilities, is preparing to seek bids for a single-faith prison program as well.

Government agencies have been repeatedly criticized by judges and government auditors for not doing enough to guard against taxpayer-financed evangelism. But some constitutional lawyers say new federal rules might bar the government from imposing special requirements for how faith-based programs are audited.

And, typically, the only penalty imposed when constitutional violations are detected is the cancellation of future financing -- with no requirement that money improperly used for religious purposes be repaid.

But in a move that some constitutional lawyers found surprising, Pratt ordered the prison ministry in the Iowa case to repay more than $1.5 million in government money, saying the constitutional violations were serious and clearly foreseeable.

His decision has been appealed by the prison ministry to a federal appeals court and fiercely protested by the attorneys general of nine states and lawyers for a number of groups advocating greater government accommodation of religious groups.

Officials of the Iowa program said that any anti-Catholic comments made to inmates did not reflect the program's philosophy and are not condoned by its leadership.

Jay Hein, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the Iowa decision was unfair to the ministry and reflects an "overreaching" at odds with legal developments that increasingly "show favor to religion in the public square."

And while he acknowledged the need for vigilance, he said he did not think the constitutional risks outweighed the benefits of inviting "faith-infused" ministries, like the one in Iowa, to provide government-financed services to "people of faith who seek to be served in this `full-person' concept."

Over the past two decades, legislatures, government agencies and the courts have provided religious organizations with a widening range of regulatory and tax exemptions. And in the past decade religious institutions have also been granted access to public money once denied on constitutional grounds, including historic preservation grants and emergency reconstruction funds.

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