The Magazine

Barring Faith

A federal judge strikes down prison ministries.

Jul 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 41 • By GERALD V. BRADLEY and ROBERT P. GEORGE
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So anyone who would combat recidivism faces a puzzle: How to instill in a prisoner the personal qualities that constitute decent character and will be indispensable to a law-abiding life outside--self-respect, responsibility, integrity, respect for others, pride in accomplishment, gratitude--without pushing religion? If prisons are going to attempt moral reform, they will have to do it indirectly, in creative partnership with private groups. That is because the groups that are in the character-forming and transforming business tend to be religious. Reforming prisoners, then, offers a terrific opportunity for "faith-based" social services, provided through cooperation between institutions of civil society and government, for the common good.

In no other arena is this cooperation more fitting. When it comes to "rehab" programs for inmates, for the drug-addled, for the alcoholic--when it comes to any service that engages the will, individual choice, the character of the recipient--government is necessarily ham-handed. Changing minds and hearts is not the strong suit of the bureaucrat. Instead, it is private charities, especially religious ones, that have the skills, the motivation, the experience. And they perform--none more successfully than Prison Fellowship.

Charles Colson founded Prison Fellowship shortly after his release from prison in 1976 for Watergate misdeeds. What began as a simple prison ministry has grown into a model for the faith-based delivery of needed "secular" services.

But on June 2, Iowa federal district court judge Robert W. Pratt threw a huge roadblock in its way by declaring the work of Prison Fellowship in an Iowa prison to be an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment's prohibition of "laws respecting an establishment of religion." What's worse, the judge's reasoning threatens the very concept of faith-based social services in partnership with government--an idea supported by politicians from Bill Clinton to Bill Frist and endorsed in the 2000 presidential campaign by both Al Gore and George W. Bush.

What happened in Iowa? On March 24, 1999, Prison Fellowship and its affiliated ministry InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) contracted with the Iowa Department of Corrections to provide programs at the Newton Correctional Facility. Prisoners would not be required to participate. In the words of the Iowa judge, IFI is "a faith-based program designed to transform prisoners into good citizens, to reduce the recidivism rate of current inmates, and to prepare inmates for their return to society by providing educational, ethical, and religious instruction." Those 18th-century Quakers would have understood.

According to Warden Terry Mapes at Newton, anyone could see the results--the transformation of the prisoners enrolled in IFI. "It's the pro-social behavior. It is the thing that we hope [in] corrections will make a difference." For a relatively modest sum of money, the warden said, he got "a substance abuse program, . . . a victim impact program, . . . a computer education program," and a lot more. It sounds like a partnership that was good for the prison, the in mates, and the community at large.

What's more, the court found "no evidence" that promoting religion was the program's main concern. On the contrary, it concluded that state officials' "primary purpose" in awarding the contract was "to reduce recidivism among Iowa inmates."

So, why did Judge Pratt say the warden's contract with IFI violated the Constitution? Three related arguments can be discovered in the court's sprawling and undisciplined opinion.

The first reason is the judge's startling conclusion that Prison Fellowship and IFI are, in fact, "state actors" and thus are no more permitted to espouse Christianity (or any other faith) than is the state of Iowa itself. The court declared that reducing recidivism was a "state function" and, apparently, that anyone who contributed to its discharge was a "state actor." From there the court proceeded readily to its conclusion, for it is indeed the law under the First Amendment that states may not prefer one religion to another. IFI, a Christian ministry, clearly does.

By this reasoning, of course, not only comprehensive anti-recidivist programs inside prisons, but also all sorts of faith-based programs outside (pre- and post-conviction) plausibly viewed as "anti-recidivist" would be illegal.