Faith-Based Prison under Scrutiny; Church-State Separation Issue Pursued

Article excerpt

Byline: PAUL PINKHAM, The Times-Union

A church-state separation group has filed a massive public records request with the Florida Department of Corrections aimed at determining whether the nation's first faith-based prison in Lawtey is legal.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent the request Friday, seeking prison system records explaining funding, programming and policies at Lawtey. The documents sought include contracts with providers of faith-based programming, correspondence about the prison, inmate selection policies and budget documents.

Gov. Jeb Bush dedicated Lawtey Correctional Institution as the nation's first entirely faith-based prison Dec. 24. It houses inmates nearing the end of their sentences who desire a faith component in their incarceration.

"We need to get all of the facts to see whether this prison is being run in accordance with the U.S. and Florida constitutions," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, Americans United's executive director.

He said state officials have made conflicting claims about the role religion will play in the facility.

Washington-based Americans United, which claims 3,500 Florida members, has been critical of the proposal and is suing to block a Christian program in Iowa's prison system.

Lawtey differs from that program in that inmates of all faiths are welcome, including those who don't believe in God, Florida prison officials said. They believe their program is constitutional because it doesn't discriminate, is entirely voluntary for inmates and uses volunteers, not state funds, for its faith-based aspects. …