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Iowa Faith-Based Program Held Unconstitutional by 8th Circuit; Continues with Private Funding

Previously, PLN reported an Iowa federal district court ruling which held that the InnerChange Freedom Initiatives, a faith-based prison program that received state funding, violated the First Amendment?s establishment clause. [See: PLN, July 2006, pg.18]. As noted in this issue of PLN, that ruling was largely upheld on appeal.

District Court Judge Robert Pratt stayed his order pending an appeal but ruled that all state funding for the program must be discontinued. Judge Pratt also ordered InnerChange to repay $1.5 million in state funds it had received under its contract with the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC).

While the case was on appeal the IDOC reached an agreement to allow the InnerChange program to complete the last year of its three-year contract at the Newton Correctional Institution (NCI), using private funding.
InnerChange also agreed that it could not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity, and must protect the rights of gays and lesbians.
?They have to open it up for everybody to have an opportunity,? said IDOC spokesman Fred Scaletta.

InnerChange, which is run by Virginia-based Prison Fellowship, had operated at NCI since 1999; it serves 145 prisoners who spend their days working, participating in counseling and prayer, and immersing themselves in evangelical Christianity. The lawsuit to close the program was filed in 2003 by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

After state funding was discontinued, the InnerChange program at NCI faced closure on July 1, 2007. The loss of the $310,000 annual state appropriation, which covered 30-40% of InnerChange?s expenses, was picked up by private donors. ?Our donors are willing to step up and keep the program in operation,? said Norman Cox, Jr., vice president of Prison Fellowship. ?It will continue without state funding, but we are pleased to be able to do that, and we are pleased with the success the program has enjoyed.?

A report by the Iowa Department of Management found that InnerChange was the most successful in reducing recidivism out of IDOC?s 17 substance abuse programs. A 2003 study by the University of Pennsylvania found a Texas program run by InnerChange significantly reduced re-incarceration when compared to other groups. However, since no secular alternatives are available, the comparison is more aptly described as being between InnerChange and nothing.

On December 3, 2007, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court?s finding that the InnerChange program cannot constitutionally operate with state funding. The Court noted that ?plaintiffs demonstrated (and defendants do not seriously contest) that the InnerChange program resulted in inmate enrollment in a program dominated by Bible study, Christian classes, religious revivals, and church services.?

The appellate court overturned Judge Pratt?s $1.5 million reimbursement order, however, finding it was an abuse of discretion, and rejected the ?pervasively sectarian? standard used by the district court. Both sides claimed victory in the case. Eric C. Rassback, litigation director for the Becket Fund, which represented Prison Fellowship in the lawsuit, said his clients were relieved they didn?t have to repay the state funding they had received but ?were hoping for a better ruling.? See: Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship, Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Case No. 06-2741 (Dec. 3, 2007).

InnerChange operates Christian evangelical prison programs in five other states, including Texas, Minnesota, Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri. Those programs are not expected to be affected by the 8th Circuit?s ruling.

Sources: Des Moines Register, Christian Post Reporter, New York Times, Associated Press

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