Notes On Prison Ministries Trial

A prisoner at Newton Correctional Facility holds the Bible while he participates in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a religion-based treatment program.

Laird: Signs point to compromise

Notes on Prison Ministries trial

varUsername = “roxlaird@dmreg.com”;document.write(“By ROX LAIRD“);By ROX LAIRD
REGISTER EDITORIAL WRITER

February 14, 2007
  4 Comments

The lawyer, Alex Luchenitser of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, hesitated, saying that would depend on the unique set of facts.

“I just gave you some facts,” an impatient O’Connor shot back. “Is that OK?”

The exchange produced a murmur of chuckles from the audience in the courtroom on the top floor of the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse here Tuesday. The cavernous courtroom was packed with curious onlookers on hand to witness oral arguments in a case involving historic constitutional issues — and the presence of a former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in action.

The exchange was important, however, for what it revealed about the judges’ thinking on this appeal from a June 2006 ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt in Des Moines that a faith-based treatment program at the Newton Correctional Facility is unconstitutional. Questions posed by the three judges for the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals suggested they could be looking for a way to salvage the program.

The judges devoted little time to the question of whether the district court was correct in ruling the Iowa prison program, operated by the Prison Ministries organization founded by Charles Colson, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Indeed, the focus of the questions on how to cure any constitutional violation implied there is one.

Still, Judge Roger Wollman was critical of the district court for devoting so much of its decision to the fact that the program is operated by evangelical Christians. That issue, he said, “is interesting but irrelevant.” What if it were run by Missouri Synod Lutherans, mused Wollman, of South Dakota, who was appointed to the 8th Circuit in 1985 by Ronald Reagan. “What about Unitarians? Scientologists?”

Luchenitser said the evangelical nature of Prison Ministries is relevant precisely because Prison Ministries’ program is suffused with Christian doctrine and its goal of a spiritual transformation cannot be separated from whatever secular benefit the program offers to the state.

That position struck all three judges as going too far, and they were clearly troubled by the idea that the lower court ordered Prison Ministries to refund the entire $1.5 million it has been paid by the state of Iowa to operate the program over the past six years.

Judge W. Duane Benton of Missouri, who was appointed to the court by President Bush two years ago, seemed incredulous: What about the prisoner’s First Amendment right to exercise his religious beliefs? “Surely that has some value – huh?”

The fact that all three judges hammered on this issue suggests the court is sympathetic to the defendants’ argument that the lower court’s order of repayment could have a “chilling effect” on all other Prison Ministries programs in other states, now and in the future, along with other faith-based programs like it.

That concern, taken with the judges’ questions about how the program could be restructured to cure any problems that might render it unconstitutional, suggests one possibility: The court could send the case back down for further review with the goal of achieving a compromise acceptable to both sides.

Since both sides view this case as having profound and lasting impact on the constitutionality of all government participation in private programs founded on religious principles, a compromise would be in the best interests of everyone.

ROX LAIRD is a Register editorial writer. He can be reached at 284-8097 or rlaird@dmreg.com

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