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$227,500 Settlement in Suit by Former Minnesota DOC Prison Chaplain

A former Minnesota prison chaplain has settled a lawsuit against state officials after she lost her job for raising concerns about the constitutionality of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) program.

Kristine Holmgren was employed by the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) as the religious coordinator at the Shakopee women’s prison from January 2006 until June 2006. Warden Fredric Hillengass fired Holmgren after she expressed concerns that the IFI program would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by being a state-funded program to convert prisoners to fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity.
Holmgren was aware of a similar IFI program in Iowa that had been declared unconstitutional. [See: PLN, June 2008, p.31; Jan. 2008, pp. 27, 30].

She first raised her concerns privately with DOC Assistant Commissioner Erik Skon in February 2006. He informed Holmgren that her concerns were unfounded, the IFI program would be implemented and it would be in her best interests to stop asking questions. In June 2006, Holmgren met privately with Warden Hillengass, who refused to answer questions about the IFI program and how it might differ from the unconstitutional program in Iowa, or whether other faith-based programs would be solicited so as to maintain religious diversity.

At a staff meeting later that month, Hillengass announced the pending implementation of the IFI program. Holmgren asked questions about the program which apparently embarrassed the warden. He then terminated her employment, at least in part for asking questions at the staff meeting he felt were “intended to provoke staff discussion” against IFI.

Holmgren filed a civil rights suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the state, Hillengass and the DOC commissioner in state court. Among other claims, she alleged that her termination violated her First Amendment rights. The defendants moved for summary judgment, alleging Holmgren’s speech was not protected because it was related to her job duties.

The court granted summary judgment to the commissioner because she was not personally involved in the decision to fire Holmgren. Warden Hillengass was denied summary judgment, as the court concluded that Holmgren’s speech did not arise from her employment and her interest in speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern outweighed the state’s interest in an orderly workplace. The court left it up to a factfinder to determine whether Holmgren was fired for engaging in protected speech, and the defendants filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the lower court on June 22, 2010 in an unpublished opinion. The appellate court found that “the facts Holmgren alleges are sufficient to demonstrate a First Amendment violation,” as she may have been speaking as a private citizen and her speech was related to a matter of public concern. See: Holmgren v. State of Minnesota, Minn. Court of Appeals, Case No. A09-1445; 2010 WL 2485603.

Following remand the parties agreed to settle the case in March 2011, with the state paying Holmgren $227,500. She was represented by Minneapolis attorneys Stephen W. Cooper and Stacey R. Everson.

Expressing relief that the five-year legal battle was over, Holmgren said it wouldn’t “feel like justice until InnerChange Freedom Initiative is out of the prison system in Minnesota.” She added, “The money was never the issue for me. I’m an American citizen ... working for the State of Minnesota, and my constitutional rights were violated when I was told to shut up about something I found to be illegal and questionable and a violation of other people’s rights.”

During the course of the litigation, Holmgren said that prisoners told her they felt coerced to adopt the IFI’s Christian viewpoints. They also reported ministry leaders had engaged in humiliation tactics, were offensive, “singled out minorities and unmarried women, harassed lesbians and praised the superiority of men.”

DOC director of communications John Schadl praised the effectiveness of the IFI program but stated it was not “the position of Corrections to prefer one faith over another but to provide services to the inmates so they can be successful upon release.” He also said IFI had received some taxpayer money when it started at the Lino Lakes facility, but no longer receives state funding.

IFI is operated by Chuck Colson’s Virginia-based Prison Fellowship. In addition to Minnesota, there are IFI programs in prisons in Texas, Kansas and Missouri.

Additional sources: Minnesota Star Tribune,

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Related legal case

Holmgren v. State of Minnesota