Imagine a prison with such a positive atmosphere that the guards don’t need to carry guns to protect themselves. Imagine a prison where inmates begin each day with Bible reading and prayer, leading some to faith in Christ. Imagine a prison where convicted felons open the door for you, look you straight in the eye, and give you a friendly greeting. Imagine a prison so different that visitors always ask the same question: What makes this place so different?

Imagine Unit E at Iowa’s Newton Correctional Facility, where the InnerChange Freedom Initiative sponsored by Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship is running what may be the best pre-release rehabilitation program in the country. Each year some 600,000 inmates are released from America’s prisons; about two-thirds will be back behind bars within three years. However, the recidivism rate at Unit E is dramatically lower: under twenty percent, according to an independent study at the University of Pennsylvania. The reason for this remarkable success rate is not hard to guess: InnerChange is based on biblical principles for spiritual transformation.

However, if U.S. District Court Judge Robert W. Pratt gets his way, InnerChange is on its way out. In the legal case Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, Pratt ruled that InnerChange must vacate the prison system within 60 days and return the nearly $2 million dollars it had received from the State of Iowa as payment for services rendered. This is because, in Pratt’s opinion, the InnerChange program uses taxpayer money to advance religion, in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The facts of the case show that after a competitive bidding process, the Iowa Department of Corrections awarded its contract with InnerChange for the legitimate secular purpose of rehabilitating prisoners. In the opinion of warden Terry Mapes, this was a huge bargain. For an annual cost of a little more than $300,000, he testified, “I get a substance abuse program, I get a victim impact program, I get a computer education program, I get pro-social skills programs, I get engaged inmates who are actively involved in something constructive, keeping them busy,… and I get supervision of offenders either in classes, in activities, in recreation by somebody other than the limited staff I have.”

It should be noted that participation in InnerChange is voluntary, not coercive. Prisoners accepted into the program know in advance that they will use an explicitly Christ-centered curriculum. At no point are they required to convert to Christianity, although at every opportunity they are encouraged to lead a biblical lifestyle. Participants are also free to leave at any time. As Judge Pratt said himself, InnerChange 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.”

So to ask the obvious question: What is so wrong with a program that does so much good? According to the court, because InnerChange is pervasively sectarian, because it indoctrinates inmates with biblical teaching, because it seeks to convert participants to faith in Jesus Christ, because it virtually turns Unit E into an evangelical church, because it gives preferential treatment to participants, and because it entangles the state in religious matters, it effectively establishes Christianity in the Iowa prison system, and is therefore unconstitutional.

Judge Pratt’s verdict, which will now be reconsidered by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, raises many urgent concerns about the exclusion of religion from public life. The people who stand to lose the most, of course, are the ones most in need of help: the prison inmates of the Newton Correctional Facility. But if Pratt’s decision stands, it will also have much wider implications.

Reading through the decision, it is hard to avoid the impression of bias against Prison Fellowship. Pratt’s characterization of evangelical Christianity is often inaccurate and at times pejorative. His refusal to countenance any restructuring of InnerChange or other corrective remedy (such as allowing the program to continue without government funding) that could possibly pass constitutional muster is disconcerting and perhaps religiously discriminatory. And his astonishing decision to make Prison Fellowship repay the money it received for fulfilling its good faith contract over the last six years can hardly be regarded as anything except harshly punitive.

Nevertheless, there are some important lessons for prison ministries and other faith-based organizations to learn from this legal outcome. One is to be scrupulously careful to ensure that any funds they receive from the government are only used for secular purposes. It seems clear from the record of the case that InnerChange was unduly careless in distinguishing between money it received from supporters and used for ministry and money it received from the government and used for secular aspects of its program (such as vocational training). This is one good place to apply our Lord’s exhortation to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

Another lesson to learn is that our legal system is unlikely to tolerate federal funding for any faith-based program that is based on sound principles for ministry. Judge Pratt rightly perceived that Christian teaching is integral to virtually every aspect of InnerChange–as it should be. The gospel of Jesus in the Word of God is the key to its effectiveness. However, the Christ-centeredness of the ministry made it vulnerable to the charge that its purposes were exclusively religious without also being legitimately secular.

The decision in Americans United v. Prison Fellowship may or may not be good constitutional law, but it is almost certainly not good prison reform. The first prison in this country was built right here in Philadelphia, behind what is now called Independence Hall. It was built for the explicit purpose of bringing moral transformation through religious instruction. Doubtless the men who wrote the U. S. Constitution next door would be astonished to discover that such a worthy enterprise is now inappropriate in an American prison–indeed, that it is illegal.

It is disappointing to see such good work under the threat of getting closed down. There is some consolation in knowing that we have not yet lost the right to do our biblical duty and visit the prisoner (see Matt. 25:36). Yet Judge Pratt’s decision seems likely to have a chilling effect on the good that Christians might do for society by offering prison programs that lead to personal change.

[Information for this Window on the World comes from Joel Belz, “Handcuffing Prisons,” World (August 12, 2006), pp, 14-17; from Robert P. George and Gerald V. Bradley, “A federal judge strikes down prison ministries,” The Weekly Standard (July 17, 2006); from a June 6, 2006, “BreakPoint Commentary” by Mark Earley; and from Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, a judgment written by Judge Robert W. Pratt on June 2, 2006, for the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa].

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