Federal Court Clears AU Challenge To Religious Prison Program

A federal court has ruled that Americans United’s lawsuit against a faith-based prison ministry program in Iowa may proceed to trial.

In 2003, Americans United brought suit in federal court, arguing that the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) was violating the separation of church and state by promoting an evangelical Christian prison ministry program called InnerChange Freedom Initiative.

In its lawsuit, Americans United argued that the program, which receives state support, indoctrinates participants in evangelical Christianity and that inmates choosing to enter the program receive benefits not provided to those who do not. InnerChange was created and is operated by Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Iowa prison officials sought to have the case dismissed, but in a 29-page ruling issued April 29, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt rejected that overture.

Pratt wrote that Americans United had produced “voluminous documentation” in arguing “the InnerChange program is so infused with religion that it is impossible to separate its sectarian from nonsectarian functioning.”

Americans United is representing IDOC inmates, their family members and Iowa taxpayers. The lawsuit contends that inmates taking part in the religious program receive preferential treatment. (See “Colson Prison Blues,” March 2003 Church & State.)

Pratt noted in Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, that Iowa’s corrections department had paid InnerChange $1,111,553.50 “in direct payments” and that the contract with the religious program has “been renewed and extended annually to the present.”

AU’s lawsuit charges that InnerChange is based on evangelical Christianity. The program’s materials describe it as “a revolutionary, Christ-centered, values-based pre-release program supporting prison inmates through their spiritual and moral transformation.”

Pratt’s opinion also ordered “that a trial will be held as soon as feasibly possible on Plaintiffs’ claims that IDOC’s funding of the InnerChange program violates” the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.

“The court’s opinion recognizes that we have presented a substantial amount of evidence in support of our claims that the InnerChange program violates the U.S. Constitution,” said AU’s Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser. “We look forward to proving at trial that the government is supporting religious discrimination and coercion by funding and sponsoring InnerChange.”