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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The second reason the court gave was alleged "coercion." Both Prison Fellowship and IFI are nondenominational Bible-based ministries, and advertised themselves as such to Iowa prisoners. No one was required to participate in their activities. Even after inmates had chosen to participate, they remained free to leave the program and return to the usual prison routine. Inmates who chose to participate were not required to convert to Christianity. They were told from the outset what the expectations and content of the program were. And every inmate who testified at the Iowa trial said he was promised nothing by the prison authorities for enrolling in IFI. Each testified that it was his personal choice to participate--uncoerced and un bribed.

The court brushed aside these inconvenient facts with the observation that prisons are "inherently coercive environments." Somehow this negated the freedom of choice that participants in IFI said they had experienced. What's more, any chance that the ill effects of the court's reasoning can be confined to faith-based programs inside the coercive environment of prisons is diminished by the court's analogy to a separate case, one involving a homeless shelter in Idaho run by a religious group. Someone enrolled in a program at the shelter challenged the expectation that he would attend religious meetings. This plaintiff, although participating in the program voluntarily, resented having to give a reason for not attending a particular religious meeting.

The Idaho court ruled that expecting an explanation--which could be as succinct as "I am a Muslim"--violated the Constitution. Because the Christians running the shelter had a service contract with the government, according to the Idaho court, they were a "surrogate" for the state. Just as the state of Idaho or the city of Boise may not ask why you don't want to pray, so too the Christians offering you shelter. They have to behave, in other words, as if they are the state of Idaho or the city of Boise.

And this brings us to the third and most important reason the court found for its ruling, the one that undermines the very concept of faith-based social services provided at public expense. The Iowa court said that there is "no set of circumstances under which state funds could support the transformational values-based treatment methods employed in the InnerChange Program." The reason was that the "secular" and the "sectarian" aspects of its programming were inseparable. That made IFI "pervasively sectarian." Judge Pratt cited Supreme Court cases saying that "pervasively sectarian" institutions may not receive direct government grants. (These dubious precedents, with their complicated tests and definitions, are themselves under continuing attack, both on the High Court and among commentators. But that is a story for another day.)

What the Iowa court did, then, was point a dagger at the heart of the faith-based provision of social services. Of course IFI is "pervasively sectarian," if that means that religion is an ineradicable element of its programming and is believed to be essential to the program's success. According to Judge Pratt's logic, if religion is an integral component of a provider's programs, then that provider may under no circumstances receive government grants.

Prison Fellowship and IFI have announced their intention to appeal this appalling decision. Anyone who supports the faith-based charitable initiative now seeking firm footing in our legal culture should support that appeal. But those whose specific concern is to help people behind bars should be in the vanguard of seeking the reversal of Judge Pratt's ruling.

Charles Colson and his group have done this country and many thousands of imprisoned souls a great but largely unheralded service these 30 years. They do not do it for praise. But it still smarts when a federal judge kicks them in the hindquarters for their effort.

And this is precisely what Judge Pratt did. He charged the state of Iowa and IFI with the "intentional choice" to "inculcate prisoners as a treatment for recidivist behavior." And for that offense, he said, not only must IFI cease to receive public payment, but it must repay all the money expended at the Newton facility--despite the fact that Prison Fellowship won its contract in a fair competitive bidding process and fully delivered the services it had agreed to provide. In effect, then, IFI and Prison Fellowship are being fined $1.7 million for the sin of violating a Constitution that exists only in the mind of Judge Pratt.

The Quakers of Philadelphia are turning over in their graves.

Robert P. George is McCormick professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program at Princeton University. Gerard V. Bradley is professor of law at the University of Notre Dame.