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God Pod Under Fire

By Silja JA Talvi, Santa Fe Reporter

Prison program sparks lawsuit. Faith-based initiatives are all the rage these days, particularly when hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding have been available to programs and agencies that tow the religion-and-social-services approach favored by the Bush administration.

When the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) started looking into New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's willingness to sign on as one of 26 governors who agreed to establish their own faith-based offices, they discovered that the state already had a sprinkling of such programs

One of the programs that piqued the FFRF's interest was the Christian-based Life Principles/Crossings residential segregation pod, housed within the Corrections Corporation of American (CCA)-run New Mexico Women's Correctional Facility in Grants.

FFRF sought out more information on the prison program, and located a March 9, 2005 SFR cover story, Beyond the God Pod: A new era of Christian programs makes life better for some women prisoners--the ones who believe.

That story was the result of a day-long visit to NMWCF, which sparked an ensuing investigation into CCA's plan to extend this residential religious model to all of its other privately owned prisons in the US, in partnership with a fundamentalist Christian evangelical organization, Institute in Basic Life Principles.

Filed on Nov. 7, 2005, in the Federal District Court of New Mexico by FFRF and six resident New Mexicans, the lawsuit names Gov. Richardson; Joe R Williams, secretary of the New Mexico Corrections Department; Homer Gonzales, co-ordinator of faith-based programs for the New Mexico Corrections department; Bill Snodgrass, warden, New Mexico Women's Correctional Facility and the Corrections Corporation of America.

Much of the preliminary content of the lawsuit is derived directly from the SFR cover story, including interviews, quotes and excerpts from the IBLP workbooks for female prisoners that break down basic life principles" into categories such as Moral Purity, "Yielding Rights" and "Proper Submission."

"We were pleased to be able to have all the material to look at [from the Santa Fe Reporter] article," notes FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The NMCD has been adamant that the program is not only voluntary and beneficial to the prison itself because of the calming effect it has on prisoners. It also has insisted that religious conversion to Christianity is not necessary for women to participate in the program.

But upon closer examination, SFR discovered the female inmates in the Crossings program are given materials asking, "Have you received Jesus Christ as your Personal Savior?"

"The first function of faith is to believe in Christ for salvation," prisoners are further instructed.

The NMCD did not respond to request for comment by press time, but has previously indicated plans to expand the program to house 245 women.

FFRF contends the CCA-NMWCF Crossings program is in clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Madison, Wisconsin based organization has 6,000 dues-paying members from all states in the union.

To date, FFRF has brought and won more legal challenges relating to the Bush-era faith-based initiatives" than any other state/church watchdog group, including several related to faith-based programming for prisoners, rural patients and college students. In the God Pod lawsuit, the organization seeks a broader court order to prevent the State of New Mexico from using state funds to promote, advance or endorse the establishment of

Says Gaylor, "We have a great deal of confidence that we will win this case."

"In truth," she adds, "we could be filing a case every day. We're facing a tidal wave of faith-based programs being funded by taxpayer dollars."

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe Reporter on November 16, 2005. Reprinted with the author's permission.

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