The Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State claims state funding for the faith-based program is unconstitutional.
The suit comes as President Bush works to expand the role of religious groups in social services, drawing complaints that he is blurring the constitutional boundary between church and state.
The InnerChange Freedom Initiative, offered at Iowa’s Newton Correctional Facility since 1999, aims to reduce recidivism among inmates.
The program, operated by Prison Fellowship Ministries, also is run in prisons in Texas, Kansas and Minnesota. Reston, Va.-based Prison Fellowship was founded by Chuck Colson, a former aide to President Nixon and a Watergate defendant.
“The InnerChange program contains everything that is wrong with the president’s faith-based initiative,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of the nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
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“It uses government funds for pervasively religious programs, funding for religious conversion, discrimination in hiring practices – ignoring entirely the principle of separation of church and state.”
The suit says the program is funded almost entirely with government money, with 99 percent of its $689,877 in revenues in fiscal 2001 coming from the states of Iowa and Kansas.
Fred Scaletta, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Corrections, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, said the suit’s allegations are baseless.
“The InnerChange Freedom Initiative in operation in Iowa in no way violates … the First Amendment to the Constitution,” he said. “In fact, federal law allows a state to include religious organizations as social service providers.”
InnerChange uses state money solely for nonsectarian expenses while private funds are used for religious programming, Earley said.
Plaintiffs in the suit include two family members and a fiance of inmates at Newton, and alleges that inmates who voluntarily enter the program receive numerous privileges not afforded other prisoners.
Such inmates live in an honor unit where they are given keys to their own cells and have access to private bathrooms. They are allowed extra visits from family members, free telephone calls to family, access to computers and big screen televisions.
The program “gives inmates incentives to subject themselves to religious indoctrination,” the suit says.
“That’s what’s at the heart of this,” Lynn said. “This is coercion using state funds to become a fundamentalist Christian.”