Saturday, December 09, 2006

The First Amendment Was Just For Practice...

Long and infuriating story in tomorrow's NYT (yes, I can see into the future, but I only use my power for good) about government-funded Christian indoctrination. It's very long, so my interminable excerpting is not nearly as comprehensive as it may appear. I recommend reading the whole thing to get a better sense of scope and scale.
Life was different in Unit E at the state prison outside Newton, Iowa.

The toilets and sinks — white porcelain ones, like at home — were in a separate bathroom with partitions for privacy. In many Iowa prisons, metal toilet-and-sink combinations squat beside the bunks, to be used without privacy, a few feet from cellmates.

The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs, with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands and real-world food, like pizza or sandwiches from Subway. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting rooms.

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress. The program — which grew from a project started in 1997 at a Texas prison with the support of George W. Bush, who was governor at the time — says on its Web site that it seeks “to ‘cure’ prisoners by identifying sin as the root of their problems” and showing inmates “how God can heal them permanently, if they turn from their sinful past.”

One Roman Catholic inmate, Michael A. Bauer, left the program after a year, mostly because he felt the program staff and volunteers were hostile toward his faith.

(...)

The Iowa prison program is not unique. Since 2000, courts have cited more than a dozen programs for having unconstitutionally used taxpayer money to pay for religious activities or evangelism aimed at prisoners, recovering addicts, job seekers, teenagers and children.

(...)

[I]n a move that some constitutional lawyers found surprising, Judge Pratt ordered the prison ministry in the Iowa case to repay more than $1.5 million in government money, saying the constitutional violations were serious and clearly foreseeable.

His decision has been appealed by the prison ministry to a federal appeals court and fiercely protested by the attorneys general of nine states and lawyers for a number of groups advocating greater government accommodation of religious groups. The ministry’s allies in court include the Bush administration, which argued that the repayment order could derail its efforts to draw more religious groups into taxpayer-financed programs.

(...)

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that public money could be used for religious instruction or indoctrination, but only when the intended beneficiaries made the choice themselves between religious and secular programs....

But even in today’s more accommodating environment, constitutional scholars agree that one line between church and state has remained fairly bright: The government cannot directly finance or support religious evangelism or indoctrination. That restriction typically has not loomed large when public money goes to religious charities providing essentially secular services, like job training, after-school tutoring, child care or food banks. In such cases, the beneficiaries need not accept the charity’s religious beliefs to get the secular benefits the government is financing.

The courts have taken a different view, however, when public money goes directly to groups, like the Iowa ministry, whose method of helping others is to introduce them to a specific set of religious beliefs — and whose success depends on the beneficiary accepting those core beliefs. In those cases, most of the challenged grants have been struck down as unconstitutional.

Those who see faith-based groups as exceptionally effective allies in the battle against criminal recidivism, teen pregnancy, addiction and other social ills say these cases are rare, compared with the number of programs receiving funds, and should not tarnish the concept of bringing more religious groups into publicly financed programs, so long as any direct financing is used only for secular expenses. [This is ironic - remember when the Bush administration made the reverse argument to deny all funding to any international clinics that performed abortions?]

(...)

One grant went to a theater company that toured high schools performing a skit called “Just Say Whoa.” The script contained many religious references including one in which a character called Bible Guy tells teenagers in the cast: “As Christians, our bodies belong to the Lord, not to us.” [this isn't particularly relevant, I'm just amused by the name "Bible Guy" for some reason]

(...)

In ruling on [the Iowa prison] case, Judge Pratt noted that the born-again Christian staff was the sole judge of an inmate’s spiritual transformation. If an inmate did not join in the religious activities that were part of his “treatment,” the staff could write up disciplinary reports, generating demerits the inmate’s parole board might see. Or they could expel the inmate.

And while the program was supposedly open to all, in practice its content was “a substantial disincentive” for inmates of other faiths to join, the judge noted. Although the ministry itself does not condone hostility toward Catholics, Roman Catholic inmates heard their faith criticized by staff members and volunteers from local evangelical churches, the judge found. And Jews and Muslims in the program would have been required to participate in Christian worship services even if that deeply offended their own religious beliefs.

(...)

Not all programs in prisons are so narrowly focused. Florida now has three prisons that offer inmates, who must ask to be housed there, more than two dozen offerings ranging from various Christian denominations to Orthodox Judaism to Scientology. But at Newton, Judge Pratt found, there were few options — and no equivalent programs — without religious indoctrination.

“The state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation, i.e., InnerChange employees, authority to control the spiritual, emotional and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates,” Judge Pratt wrote. “There are no adequate safeguards present, nor could there be, to ensure that state funds are not being directly spent to indoctrinate Iowa inmates.”

I'm not quite as offended by the Florida prisons with multiple religious options, although I would be happier if they had an atheist/agnostic option, or at least Unitarian Universalist.

There are two aspects of the Iowa prison program, and many other Christian proselytizing-masquerading-as-good-works programs that really piss me off:

1) They are, in effect, bribing inmates and other targets (jobseekers, homeless, teenagers) to succumb to their ministrations. Yeah, sure, they're not coerced into choosing the Christian program, but who wouldn't want a nicer cell with a private toilet and the occasional pizza party? Or a job, or some food, or time on a really cool ranch? (Yes, I'm pretty sure the kids are given the most positive, appealing spin imaginable about what life on the Christian ranch will be like.) It may comply with the letter of the law, but it is fundamentally (heh) dishonest.

2) I resent the underlying premise that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is the only path to rehabilitation and redemption. It is just a little too similar to the prejudice that atheists cannot be moral because they do not have a religious code to guide them. What might a secular rehabilitation program look like? Social work is waaaay outside my area of expertise, but how about something like this, or any other organized activity that focuses the mind and builds up discipline and self-worth? Religion does not have a monopoly on instilling purpose and values.

5 comments:

Ripley said...

it seeks “to ‘cure’ prisoners by identifying sin as the root of their problems”

Well, there's a profundity that's inescapable in its self-reference. "Your bad behavior is the cause of your bad behavior." Well, then - problem solved!

I agree with you and I think these kind of programs are a real problem, not so much in their intent but, as you point out, in their operation and their gov't funding.

I don't think the prison ministry goal is particularly suspect - there probably are many folks who may be seeking some kind of spiritual study and guidance. But using the ministry and conformance to its particular dogma as a reward is bullshit. Frankly, one has to wonder why a state would allow a church to dictate its prison operations. Very suspect, indeed.

And the gov't funding a church's ministry mission is patently ridiculous and, imo, rather offensive. But we heathens are thin-skinned, I suppose. I'm sure there will be a great hue and cry about this story from our friends on the other side of the aile, in the near future - especially given the holiday season. Oy...

Ripley said...

For the want of an 's', the aisle was lost.

Eli said...

Yup, it's the bribing and the government funding that pisses me off. Just another example of Christianity being the de facto state religion.

op99 said...

For Dog's sake, don't get me started on vouchers.

Eli said...

What don't you like about vouchers?

*ducks*

(or possibly *geese*)