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Inmates in a Bible class at the Carol Vance Unit in Richmond, Texas

Limited impact?

Religion | Both sides celebrate Prison Fellowship ruling

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 15, 2007

A Dec. 3 federal appeals court ruling on the constitutionality of a faith-based prison rehabilitation program has both sides claiming victory. The panel, which included former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and two appellate judges, ruled that state funding of the six-year-old program run by Prison Fellowship at Iowa's Newton Correctional Facility is unconstitutional because it advanced or endorsed religion. But it did not require the program, which since June 2006 has operated using private funds, to be shut down.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the group that brought the lawsuit, said the ruling "is a major setback" for the Bush administration's faith-based initiatives and said "it reaffirms that the government must ensure that public funds are not used for religious instruction."

Prison Fellowship Ministries called the ruling "a huge victory for faith-based programs" because it reversed key provisions of a punitive lower court ruling. Had that ruling fully stood, it would have required Prison Fellowship to reimburse $1.7 million to the state and close what state officials regard as a successful but strict 18-month program in which inmates volunteer to participate in running their own unit, attend Bible studies along with other classes, and so far have shown a 20 percent rate of returning to a life of crime, compared to a national recidivism rate of 65 percent (see "Handcuffing prisons," Aug. 12, 2006).

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"There is a little something in this for both sides," Prison Fellowship president Mark Early told WORLD, "and nothing that negatively impacts the programs we have around the United States." That includes nine similar programs in six states, all now privately funded. Prison Fellowship will reimburse Iowa $160,000 for state funds used in the Newton unit after June 2006, when a federal judge ruled against it-amounting to about one-third of its operating costs.

But Early pointed out that the program was never part of a White House faith-based initiative plan and is unlikely to be precedent-setting for such federal programs. Federal programs in prisons are multi-faith, he pointed out, and the appellate court in its ruling faulted Iowa for not offering other faith options than Christianity at its Newton facility. Iowa attorney general's office spokesman Bob Brammer told WORLD that state officials "are studying the ruling carefully to determine its meaning and discover what options the state has." Iowa has 14 days to file an appeal with the full 8th Circuit and 90 days to seek a review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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