Constitutional Test Ahead For Faith-Based Prisons


On Christmas Eve, Gov. Jeb Bush rededicated the 30-year-old, minimum-security state penitentiary at Lawtey, Fl., as the nation’s first entirely “faith-based” prison, where every inmate has signed up for intensive religious instruction, reports the Washington Post. State officials believe the arrangement will reduce recidivism and save taxpayers’ money. Some civil libertarians, religious minorities, and penal experts question whether it is fair and effective — let alone constitutional.

The Post says that what is happening at Lawtey has turned the faith-based initiative of the governor’s older brother, President Bush, on its head: The president’s aim is to help religious charities obtain government funding to provide social services. In Florida, money is not flowing from the state to religious groups. It is flowing from religious groups to the state.

No one has brought a constitutional challenge to the Lawtey prison, but Florida officials expect one. In January, the Washington-based advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a request for internal documents about the prison’s operation and funding. “Right now, we have a lot more questions than answers,” said Americans United spokesman Joseph Conn. “We’re not opposed to people coming into prisons to minister to inmates. But if the state of Florida is just dumping prison rehabilitation programs and job training on the church’s doorstep, that does not seem like good public policy.”

Four other states — Texas, Kansas, Iowa, and Minnesota — have turned over wings of prisons to Prison Fellowship Ministries, the Reston-based evangelical Christian ministry run by convicted Watergate conspirator Charles W. Colson. Prison Fellowship describes its rehabilitation efforts as “Christ-centered.” Last year, Americans United filed suit against Iowa’s program in federal district court, charging that it violates the First Amendment by using state funds and revenues from inmates’ phone calls for sectarian purposes. The trial, set for October, will be the first major test of such program.


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