A tighter rein on faith-based initiatives

A court ruling last week against an Iowa prison program insists upon church-state separation.

It's a court case that could have major implications for President Bush's faith-based initiative: Is an evangelical Christian prison rehabilitation program, paid for by taxpayer dollars, constitutional?

The answer, issued by a federal district judgee in Iowa on June 2, was a resounding "no."

Judge Robert Pratt found that the InnerChange program run by Prison Fellowship Ministries in an Iowa prison was "pervasively sectarian" and that the facts "leave no room to doubt that the state of Iowa is excessively entangled with religion" through the program.

The decision, which will be appealed, is a major victory for those who believe America has gone too far in supporting religious or semireligious activities using public money.

But given the broad spectrum of faith-based organizations that offer programs tackling social ills from substance dependency to illiteracy, the decision also raises questions over where to draw the line of demarcation when it comes to mixing religion and social services, and whether there's a right way and a wrong way for the government to encourage the involvement of faith-based groups.

The judge criticized the lack of real choice on the part of inmates who wanted a similar, nonsectarian option, and the fact that prisoners were offered a variety of special privileges and incentives to join InnerChange, such as better cells and special visitation rights. Mr. Pratt ordered Prison Fellowship Ministries, which runs the program, to repay the $1.5 million it received from the state and to terminate the program within 60 days.

"People on all sides of this fight for years have said the same thing: We want to increase the capacity of community organizations and religious groups to help those in need," says Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va. "But under the current administration, there have been very few attempts to put in place the safeguards to make sure it's done in a way that's consistent with the First Amendment."

At InnerChange, inmates attend mandatory weekly revivals, prayers, worship services, and religion classes that preached Jesus Christ as the sole salvation.

In this case, many legal experts agree, Prison Fellowship had crossed the nebulous line governing church-state relations. There was a nominal attempt use public funds only for nonreligious activities and, technically, people of all faiths were welcome to participate, but prisoners who practiced other religions said they were discouraged from taking part and felt unwelcome, according to the judge's decision.

Religious groups such as Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services, which provide a wide array of social services through largely secular arms, have long been eligible for public money and are careful about keeping such money separate, say legal experts. The trouble has been a growing ambiguity about what is and isn't acceptable, and almost no monitoring of activities once the grants have been made.

"They say 'here are the rules' and make the grants, but I think there's a lot of 'don't ask, don't tell' going on," says Ira Lupu, a law professor at George Washington University. The legal line can be ambiguous: A program that offers a meal and includes a voluntary grace would most likely be acceptable, he says, but the programs that deal with some sort of religious character transformation are problematic. "That's where you cross the line, if the government is paying for it."

Though Mr. Bush's faith-based initiative, first announced in 2001, has never received congressional approval, the program has been expanded through executive order, and Bush recently announced that federal funding to religious groups grew to $2.1 billion last year - about 11 percent of the total funds awarded to community groups.

The one loophole is with indirect funding: Under voucher systems, the beneficiary of the funds - a drug addict ordered to go to rehab, for instance - is allowed to choose the program he wants to attend, including overtly religious options, so long as there is a choice.

Court rulings like the one in Iowa can be hard for some Americans to understand, says Mr. Haynes of the First Amendment Center. Many Americans just see the loss of a possibly fruitful social program. "But the pie isn't getting bigger," Haynes says. "They think 'wouldn't it be great to have more groups helping the poor?' That's not the issue. The issue is who gets the money."

But other critics say that though they understand the reason for the federal judge's decision, they worry it will put a damper on some vital programs. Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, says the success of his program - which has lowered the recidivism rates for people who complete the entire three years of pre- and post-release work, though not for those who eventually dropped out - is rooted in a character-transformation strategy that is "Christ-based." [Editor's note: The original version misstated Earley's first name.]

"This would take away a large portfolio of tools from the prisons to help them work with inmates," he says.

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