Instituting a Defensible Faith-Based Program. (Judicial News)

By Shorba, Jeff | Corrections Today, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Instituting a Defensible Faith-Based Program. (Judicial News)


Shorba, Jeff, Corrections Today


In recent years, many state and federal correctional systems have implemented faith-based programs that use religious teachings and instruction to change inmate behavior and promote successful reentry into society. Such programs have been created in several states, including Iowa, Kansas, Ohio and Texas. The federal government also has recently begun exploring the use of faith-based programming in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Programs differ among jurisdictions -- some focus on one particular faith, while others encompass various faiths. This article addresses some of the legal concerns to consider before implementing a faith-based program. There also may be lessons to learn from jurisdictions that already have implemented such programs.

There is very little case law specifically addressing the legality of faith-based programming. Recently, the Supreme Court of Texas offered some guidance in a case involving a religious education program in a county jail facility. In Williams v. Lara, 2001 WL 721076 (Tex. 2001), the court reviewed the constitutionality of a residential program for inmates in the Tarrant County Jail known as the Chaplain's Education Unit. The program was established by the sheriff and chaplain with the objective of reducing violence and promoting rehabilitation through the teaching of orthodox Christianity. These teachings were designed to comport with the personal religious views of the county sheriff and jail chaplain. Participation in the program was voluntary and involved instruction for 120 days, after which inmates were released back into the general population. After reviewing the program, the Texas Supreme Court found that it violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The establishment clause provides th at Congress shall make no laws establishing a religion. It prevents the government from promoting any religious doctrine or affiliating itself with one. In the Texas case, the court held that the operation of the Chaplain's Education Unit conveyed the impermissible message that the county preferred the personal religious views of the sheriff and the chaplain over other views. This official endorsement of religion was deemed unconstitutional.

In a more recent case, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin reviewed the constitutionality of funding for a faith-based, long-term residential treatment program in Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc. v. McCallum, Opinion and Order No. 00-C-617-C (W.D. Wis., Jan. 7, 2002). The Faith Works program provides drug and alcohol counseling and treatment through spiritually based program offerings, including a mandatory faith-enhanced 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program. The court reviewed two funding sources for the Faith Works program: the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development grant as a Welfare-to Work special project and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) contract to operate a halfway house for supervised offenders.

With regard to the work force development grant, the court concluded that public funding of this type to Faith Works violated the U.S. Constitution since it comprised direct funding of people who actively inculcate religious beliefs and was therefore governmental indoctrination. Even though there were nonreligious aspects of the program (drug and alcohol treatment), the court determined that religion permeated its programming. Direct funding of this religious program through unrestricted grants was considered a violation of the establishment clause.

The court also reviewed the DOC funding source, which only paid Faith Works if a supervised offender was sent to the program. The court concluded it did not have enough facts to determine if offenders had a voluntary choice whether to enter the program, thereby constituting indirect funding and therefore not a constitutional violation. If an individual, not the state, controls the funding decision, it is less likely to violate the establishment clause. …

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