Secularists Target Prison Charity; Suit Claims Iowa Effort Mixes Government Funds, Religion

Article excerpt

Byline: Larry Witham, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Bush administration's faith-based charity initiative has reached another hurdle as its critics sue a religious program in Iowa prisons and a new welfare rule on religion receives its final public comments today.

In federal court last week, Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued Iowa's InnerChange Freedom Initiative and its sponsor, Prison Fellowship, for mingling government funds and sectarian religion.

The two lawsuits said the activity used Iowa monies to teach Christianity, discriminated by hiring only workers of a particular religious view, and gave privileges to prisoners who joined.

As the lawsuit is pending, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued proposed guidelines that protects the rights of religious groups using welfare grants to choose whom they hire. A public comment period on the regulatory action ends today.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has also issued new regulations allowing grants for buildings owned by religious groups. The comment period on the HUD regulations ends March 7.

Both actions were taken under the charitable-choice clause of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.

Americans United, one of the most aggressive opponents of the charitable-choice provision, hopes to reverse the measure by a victory in the courts.

But Mark L. Earley, former attorney general of Virginia and president of Prison Fellowship, said he hopes "these suits will be dismissed quickly."

He called InnerChange one of the "most successful programs for reducing prisoner recidivism," or repeat offenses, and said it abides by the charitable-choice law.

The program, he said, is voluntary and inmate participants "are fully apprised of the faith-centered nature" of the activity, which involves religious study, connecting with a local church and making amends with crime victims.

"In Iowa, InnerChange Freedom Initiative uses state monies solely for nonsectarian expenses, while private funds are used for all religious programming," Mr. …