DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – A judge on Friday ruled that a Bible-based prison program violated the First Amendment's freedom of religion clause by using state funds to promote Christianity to inmates.
Prison Fellowship Ministries, which was sued in 2003 by a Washington-based advocacy group, was ordered to cease its program at the Newton Correctional Facility and repay the state $1.53 million.
"This decision has national implications," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed the lawsuit. "This calls into question the funding for so many programs. ... Anyone who doesn't stop it is putting a giant 'sue me' sign on top of their building."
Lynn's group, which is awaiting a judge's decision in a similar case in Pennsylvania, accused the ministry group of giving the program's inmates preferential treatment.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt agreed with the claims, saying that inmates enrolled in the program had access to the "honor unit," which offered separate restrooms, dry cells and access to cell keys. The inmates were also given special visitation rights, movie-watching privileges, access to computers and access to classes needed for early parole.
Pratt called the perks "seemingly minor benefits" that constituted unfair treatment to those not in the religious program.
The InnerChange Freedom Initiative was implemented in Newton in 1999. State prison officials have said they hired the religious group to improve inmate behavior and reduce recidivism – not promote Christianity.
Lawyers for Prison Fellowship Ministries argue that inmates have voluntarily joined the program and haven't been pressured into Christianity, though Pratt cited instances where inmates were required to participate in religious activities.
Despite any claims of rehabilitating inmates, the program "impermissibly endorses religion," Pratt wrote.
The judge is giving Ministry workers 60 days to leave the prison, though he put a stay on his order, meaning the decision won't officially be implemented until the appeals process is complete.
Officials with Prison Fellowship Ministries were not immediately available for comment Friday night, though Pratt said they have indicated they will likely appeal.
Lynn said he welcomes the challenge.
"The law is clear," he said. "The government is not in the business of promoting religion in prison or school or any other public institution."
Prison Fellowship Ministries is based in Reston, Va., and operates in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Texas and Arkansas.
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