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Eighth Circuit Holds State Funding of Iowa Faith-Based Prison Unconstitutional

On December 3, 2007, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held that partial state funding of a religious-based prison program in Iowa was unconstitutional.

The Court further held that InnerChange, a division of Prison Fellowship Ministries, was not obligated to repay $1.5 million it has received in state funding since the program began in 1999.

The Eighth Circuit decision is the latest in a string of rulings in 2007 that prohibit using government money to promote religion, said George Washington University law professor Robert Tuttle, who is an expert on faith-based initiatives.

?The main thing it does is reaffirm the obligation of government not to fund programs that intermingle secular and religious content,? said Tuttle. ?The federal government has come to terms with that over the last year. Even when it has won cases, there hasn?t been a single decision that would allow government to intertwine secular and religious content.?

In February 2003 Iowa prisoners and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Iowa challenging the state?s partial funding of the program. In 2005 the district court found the state funded program to be unconstitutional and enjoined its operation. See: Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, 395 F. Supp. 2d 805 (SD IA 2005) and 432 F.Supp.2d 862 (SD IA 2005), which is available on PLN?s website, for more in depth coverage.

Under the contract the state used money from prison telephone kickbacks and the state tobacco lawsuit settlement fund to partially fund the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, an 18-24 month biblically-based program that seeks to foster change in prisoners through the transforming power of Christ.

The funds were supposed to be used only for non-religious aspects of the program. However, like the lower court, the Eighth Circuit panel found that no definition or clear understanding of non-religious costs was ever developed. Additionally, InnerChange provided no itemized billing for state-funded functions, but rather billed the state a lump sum for what it considered were non-religious services provided during each contract period.

What?s more, though program literature and supporters say that religious belief is not necessary for admittance into the program, testimony showed that those who did not profess Christian beliefs were subjected to a hostile environment and that it was virtually impossible to complete the program successfully without professing faith in Christ and accepting biblical principals. This was unfortunate for many prisoners since the program had certain desirable benefits, like computer access?which other prisoners do not have?and more visitation periods with family members.

The Eighth Circuit, affirming the Southern District of Iowa, held that this arrangement violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S.
Constitution. Specifically, the Court held that to be constitutional ?an indirect aid program must be ?neutral with respect to religion? and provide ?assistance to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious? organizations ?wholly as a result of their own independent choice.?? In this case, the prisoners had no independent choice: it was InnerChange or nothing.

The Eighth Circuit did, however, overturn that portion of the lower court?s ruling ordering InnerChange to repay the $1.5 million it received in state funding. There was no finding of bad faith by the legislature, the appeals court held, and the payments were authorized by presumptively valid legislation.

Interestingly, retired Associate Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O?Connor sat on the panel by designation. See: Americans United for Separation of Church and State, v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, 2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 27928. See PLN, July 2006, p. 18, for more.

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Related legal case

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, v. Prison Fellowship Ministries