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Cruel & unusual

National | Why is a liberal group fighting a program that helps keep former criminals from becoming repeat offenders?

Issue: "Weapons of mass hysteria," March 15, 2003

AMERICANS UNITED FOR THE Separation of Church and State has picked the wrong target to start another First Amendment debate. Last month the organization slapped a lawsuit upon the well-respected Prison Fellowship organization, which is committing the alleged crime of helping Iowa prisoners read the Bible, pray, and avoid more crime and time in prison.

The lawsuit was filed against the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, which helps inmates with Bible study behind bars, along with education. Volunteers also help them find jobs and prepare for freedom and responsibility after leaving prison. The Iowa program, as well as similar ones in other states, already has a track record of helping prisoners make the tough transition to civilian life. The Texas Criminal Justice Council recently issued the findings of a study of the Houston program, indicating that only a remarkable 8 percent of 177 participating offenders went back to prison, compared to 22 percent of another group of inmates (See WORLD, Feb. 22). But Americans United officials clearly don't care about the prisoners. Inmates benefiting from this program are just pawns in a bigger battle.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, explained: "This program contains everything that is also wrong with the president's faith-based initiative. It uses tax dollars for pervasively religious programs, allows discriminatory hiring, gives preferential treatment to one religion over others, funds coercive conversion efforts and basically ignores the whole notion of a separation between church and state."

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Prison Fellowship officials pointed out factual errors in Mr. Lynn's overheated rhetorical blast. Prisoners volunteer for the program. The 28 percent of the budget from state funds goes to vocational skills courses and job placement, not to buy Bibles. Plenty of other faith-based organizations use government money that way, such as the Salvation Army or the University of Notre Dame. Why not sue a bigger organization? Why single out a ministry that has mobilized thousands of volunteers to visit inmates in prison and provide gifts for their children at Christmas?

Prison Fellowship was started by Charles Colson, who had been President Richard Nixon's lawyer and spent time in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. Mr. Colson never forgot the importance of Bible study and Christian faith in his own prison stint and has been sharing his faith with other prisoners ever since. He also has played a major part in helping states find alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders. Prison Fellowship should have no trouble winning this lawsuit, at least if the judges know the First Amendment and American history.

The First Amendment was designed to avoid the establishment of a government-supported denomination, such as the Church of England. The Founding Fathers supported the concept of church-state cooperation that lies behind the InnerChange initiative. Not long before they adopted the Bill of Rights, Congress voted to set aside 10,000 acres on the Muskingum River in Ohio for a Moravian mission to the Indians.

A few years later, as president, Thomas Jefferson approved an Indian treaty that included government financial support for a Roman Catholic mission with the Kaskaskia. Congress also approved a chaplain for its members, financed by the taxpayers, in those early years. The primary author of the First Amendment, James Madison, was a member of the House committee that advanced the proposal. Thus the courts should have no trouble tossing out this nuisance lawsuit.

Americans United officials would do better to drop this lawsuit and set up their own version of a prison reform program. If they don't like the Prison Fellowship program, let them come up with something better to help inmates prepare for release from prison.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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