Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Faith Based Bull

Even I could be persuaded (on principle, at least), that government funding for religious social programs, such as drug treatment, could be okay as long as the program participants had a variety of options - both secular and from other religious perspectives - that received roughly equal support. But, here we have a perfect example of a situation where this is not the case:

Most inmates at Iowa's Newton Correctional Facility live three to a cell and have no privacy, even when they use the toilet. But if they agree to immerse themselves in Bible study and "the transforming love of Jesus Christ," according to two lawsuits filed yesterday, they are given keys to their cell doors, private bathrooms, free phone calls -- even access to big-screen TVs.

The lawsuits, filed by the Washington-based advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, challenge the constitutionality of a prison ministry program that President Bush has promoted as a model for his effort to allow religious groups to compete for public funds to provide social services.


InnerChange runs programs that combine Bible study with job training at prisons in Iowa, Texas, Minnesota and Kansas. The lawsuits challenge only the Iowa program. But experts said a ruling against the program could lead to similar challenges in the other states, an appeal to the Supreme Court or both.

To ensure its legal standing to sue, Americans United filed one lawsuit on behalf of Jerry D. Ashburn, 44, who is serving a life sentence for murder, and the second on behalf of families of three other inmates.

According to the suits, about 200 Iowa prisoners pray and memorize Bible verses under the guidance of Christian staff in prison rooms lined with displays of scripture passages. In return, they live in an "honor" unit where they are housed two to a cell, permitted to leave their cells at night and granted many other privileges.

The program is funded, in part, with revenue from phone charges on the general inmate population. Iowa Department of Corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta said, "No state dollars, including telephone monies, are used in the religious component of the program." But the lawsuits contend that it is impossible to separate the religious and secular portions of a program that describes itself as "Christ-centered" 24 hours a day.

The suits also say the privileges given to InnerChange participants amount to incentives to convert to fundamentalist Christianity.

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA who generally takes a supportive view of faith-based programs, said that if the courts accept the description of the program in the lawsuits, it is likely to be struck down. Even setting aside the issue of state funding, he said, "the offer of various benefits that are unavailable to others is an indirect form of coercion that is clearly impermissible."

In practice, I don't think conditions can be met such that government intervention in religion in this way isn't more harmful than good. In any case, this situation doesn't even come close to being "okay."