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Iowa Sued Over Proselytizing Fundamentalist Christian Prison Program

Iowa Sued Over Proselytizing Fundamentalist
Christian Prison Program

by Matthew T. Clarke

On February 13, 2003, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) filed two lawsuits in federal court, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against officials of the Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC), Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) and InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), alleging that PFM's IFI program in the DOC violates the federal and Iowa state constitutional prohibitions against the establishment of a government-sponsored religion.

"This program is one of the most egregious violations of church-state separation I've ever seen," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, AUSCS executive director. "It literally merges religion and government."

The allegations include: giving special privileges to prisoners who agree to participate in the IFI program and restricting which prisoners may participate to fundamentalist Christians and willing converts to fundamentalist Christianity. The suit also alleges that state funds are used to pay for the blatantly sectarian program and the program discriminates in its hiring practices, allowing only fundamentalist Christians to become program employees.

Selection into the program involves a six-week introduction program followed by a month-long orientation program, during which the prisoner completes a "Survey of Religious Beliefs and Practices" with "Religious Attitude Inventory," and "Scriptural Literalism Scale" subsections which is designed to determine the "degree of spiritual walk" a prisoner has and allow InnerChange to weed out those prisoners whose religious beliefs and attitudes do not conform to theirs. The DOC does not select prisoners for the program; it only exercises a veto power over InnerChange's selections.

The program is housed in the "honor wing" of the Newton Correctional Facility. Privileges in the honor wing include the ability to lock your own cell, having a cell with a wooden door instead of metal bars, being housed two to a cell (instead of three to a cell as the other Newton prisoners are), being allowed out of the cell at night, and being allowed the use of toilets with privacy partitions and locks (instead of non-private cell toilets). Prior to the start of the program, the honor wing was reserved for low-risk prisoners with an established record of good behavior. Those prisoners were ousted from the honor wing to make way for the InnerChange prisoners.

InnerChange prisoners also enjoy special privileges the previous honor wing prisoners did not have. These include: special visiting privileges; religious services with family members; free phone calls to family; making videos to send home; better jobs; certified treatment and rehabilitation programs; payment for taking education classes; higher quality education classes; special disciplinary procedures which result in less severe punishment; access to computers, word-processing equipment, a music room, musical instruments, big-screen televisions, and special food prepared by outside vendors for religious celebrations; free religious articles; additional and different clothing; access to art supplies; opportunities to do art work; continuing relationships with counselors and mentors after release; and assistance with housing and jobs after release. Parole preference is given to InnerChange prisoners who successfully proceed through the program.

InnerChange and Prison Fellowship have an announced policy of employing only fundamentalist Christians who subscribe to and abide by Prison Fellowship's Statement of Faith. This includes a belief in one God, the Trinity, the deity of Jesus, the virginity of Mary, Jesus's sinless live, substitutionary death, resurrection, ascention, and place in heaven as the only mediator between God and man. Also included is a belief that the Bible is inspired and inerrant in all of its teachings including creation, history, and its own origin. Further required beliefs are that Christians must submit to the Bible's divine authority, that all people are sinful and lost and may only come to heaven through new birth in the Holy Spirit and are only justified by grace through faith in Jesus. A belief in one holy, universal and apostolic church, its mission to witness for its head, Jesus Christ, among all nations is also required as is a belief in the Second Coming, raising of the dead at that time, and establishment of a new heaven and new earth which excludes all evil, suffering and death. Potential employees who do not state in writing that they subscribe to these beliefs are not hired. Iowa state money is used to pay the salaries of InnerChange employees, thus, it is alleged that State money subsidizes employment discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs.

The money paid to InnerChange is taken from the kickback Iowa receives when prisoners place collect phone calls to free-world residents at exorbitant rates. Thus, the prisoners and their friends and families are being forced to pay for a religious program which they may not benefit from and which may be at odds with their religious beliefs. Iowa paid InnerChange $282,000 in fiscal 1999-2000; $373,000 in fiscal 2000-2001; $325,025 in fiscal 2001-2002. This is 40-50% of the InnerChange Program's costs. $229,250 from the Inmate Telephone Rebate Fund has been allocated for InnerChange in the 2003 fiscal year. An additional $172,591 has been allocate to InnerChange from the Healthy Iowans Tobacco Trust Fund.

The defendants have claimed that Iowa pays only for the non-sectarian portion for the InnerChange program. However, the program's own literature states that all aspects of it are integrated with fundamentalist Christian principles, revealing this as a disingenuous claim. Furthermore, the State did not create any safeguards or monitoring to ensure that "non-sectarian" funds were not spent for sectarian aspects of the program, relying instead on InnerChange's assessment of what percentage of each job, service or material was sectarian. Thus, 100% of InnerChange's program materials, training materials, supplies, postage; advertising, printing, telephone, freight, and meals are counted as non-sectarian when this is clearly not the case. Likewise, 16% of the Biblical Counselors' and 77% of the Office Administrator's salaries are counted as non-sectarian expenses when 100% of Biblical Counselors' jobs are, by definition, sectarian and the Office Administrator's job is to support the pervasively sectarian program. Even the "Addiction Recovery" class that is based upon the sectarian AA program is listed by InnerChange as being 100% non-sectarian. This clearly demonstrates the flaw in allowing InnerChange to be the judge, jury and prosecutor in determining whether funding is used for sectarian purposes or not.

Prison Fellowship has similar programs in Minnesota, Kansas, and Texas. Thus, much more than the relatively small Iowa InnerChange program is at stake. Should the Iowa program be found unconstitutional, the programs in other states would likewise be in danger.

Prison Fellowship claims that only the original program in Texas is unfunded. However, this too is disingenuous as the Texas program was funded to the tune of millions of dollars ["Texas Gives $2 Million to Proselytizing Prison Program," PLN, Jan. 2002]. That program, hailed as a prototype of the "faith-based" programs favored by President Bush, was funded in a last-minute amendment to the State's general budget bill, not in the Texas prison system's funding bill. Then the Texas prison system's spokesman stated that the Texas prison system's budget would not contain any money for InnerChange. While that is technically true, it is misleading. Not true at all is Prison Fellowship's claim that they receive no state funding in Texas. Unfortunately, this is typical of Prison Fellowship's apparent tendency to obfuscate and outright lie about their funding and what it is used for.

"These cases have substantial implications for President Bush's faith-based initiative," said Ayesha Khan, Legal Director for AUSCS. "The president says it's okay to use public dollars for religious discrimination, and we say it's not. These cases will be among the first to determine how far the government can go in funding religious programs."

The suits alleges that State officials met Prison Fellowship representatives in 1998 for the purpose of tailoring a public Request for Proposal for Non-Compensated Values Based Pre-Release Program that would exclude any other program. This was allegedly done without the State investigating any other program. It is also alleged that, even though the Request for Proposal stated that no State funds would be used to compensate the program, State officials agreed in advance to pay a substantial portion of InnerChange's costs. This discouraged anyone other than InnerChange from responding to the proposal request.

The suit alleges that, by establishing and financially assisting the InnerChange program without offering similar programs and benefits to prisoners who are not fundamentalist Christians, Iowa violated the Establishment Clauses of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Sections 3 and 4 of the Iowa Constitution. The violations include sponsoring and financing a program to advance a specific religion, restricting the benefits,of the program to prisoners with a specific religious belief, delegating government power to a religious organization, supporting religious discrimination in hiring, and excessive entangling of government and religion.

The suit requests a permanent injunction forbidding the operation of the InnerChange Program, or an injunction prohibiting State funds from being paid to Prison Fellowship or InnerChange and requiring that the benefits given prisoners participating in the InnerChange Program be made available to non-participating prisoners and "values based pre-release programming" based on all faiths and a secular standpoint be made available to prisoners. The suit also requests a declaratory judgment, a refund of the telephone kickback money used to support InnerChange and nominal damages. See: Complaint in Americans United for Separation of Church and State, et al. v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, et al. (U.S.D.C.-C.D.IA); First Amended Complaint in Ashburn v. Maples, et al., No. 4-02-CV-90447 (U.S.D.C.-C.D.IA).

Additional Sources: Waterloo/Cedar Falls' Courier,, Seattle Times,

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Related legal case

Ashburn v. Maples