Like his brother in the White House, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has sought to funnel more government funds and responsibilities to religious organizations.
In early December, Bush said his state would be the first in the nation to run a prison using only "faith-based" rehabilitation programs. At a Tampa conference hosted by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Bush declared, "Many of the reasons why people are in prison is because of the hollowness of the heart." He said he believes faith-based programs could help those people change their lives.
Bush was accompanied by Attorney General John Ashcroft, a longtime backer of government funding of faith-based social services. Ashcroft scoffed at opponents of the initiative who argue that funneling tax dollars to religious groups violates the First Amendment, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
A spokesman for the state's Department of Corrections said the medium-security 800-man prison in Bradford County would operate along religious lines. The Palm Beach Post reported that inmates in the prison "will receive religion-based classes in everything from parenting to character building to job training."
Gov. Bush assured those at the press conference that the religiously based prison will not violate the U.S. Constitution, because no "evangelizing" would take place and prisoners will voluntarily choose to enter the faith-based program.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has filed a lawsuit against a faith-based prison program in Iowa, criticized the Florida plan.
AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told several Florida newspapers the Florida plan raises serious constitutional concerns.
"It is clearly unconstitutional to build what amounts to a church prison at taxpayer expense," Lynn told the Jacksonville Times-Union. "This is something we're going to be looking at very carefully."
Bush will attend an inaugural Mass at the prison on Christmas Eve to kick off the new program, the St. Petersburg Times reported.