Another thing i want to send a letter to the editor about
There is a place in prisons for criminal-reform programs that are based on the transforming and redemptive power of religion.
Such treatment programs can be done in a way that is acceptable to all persons regardless of their spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof. And they can be operated without raising constitutional questions of church-state separation.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt got it right last June when he ruled that the Prison Ministries program at the Newton Correctional Facility violated the First Amendment. His decision was far from the last word on the matter, however. Prison Ministries and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed suit, plus legions of advocates on both sides, see this as a pivotal First Amendment church-state case. The case was appealed to the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which heard oral arguments in St. Louis on Tuesday.
It is impossible to predict how the court will rule based on questions the judges posed. But the three judges hearing the case - including retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has been sitting as a visiting judge on the 8th Circuit this week - were keenly interested in the prospect that the Newton program could be preserved if restructured to satisfy the constitutional problems cited in the district court ruling.
Ideally, that's what should happen: Prison Ministries, the faith-based prisoner-reform program founded by Charles Colson, should redesign its program to meet constitutional muster.
What would that entail? As Judge Pratt outlined, spiritually grounded treatment programs must be open to prisoners of all faiths, without discrimination, as well as to prisoners of no faith. The programs cannot indoctrinate nor seek to convert inmates. And they must be funded privately, although prison facilities and services may be made available to all private faith-based programs on an equal basis.
Each of those principles was violated by the program at Newton.
The six-year-old program continues to operate today, because Judge Pratt delayed the effect of his ruling during its appeal to the 8th Circuit. A decision is expected sometime later this year.
If, ultimately, the courts side with Americans United in concluding the Prison Ministries program violates the First Amendment, advocates of the evangelical Christian program will accuse the courts of taking religion out of the prisons. That simply is not true: The findings of Judge Pratt's ruling identifying the mistakes made by Prison Ministries are a road map for doing it the right way.
That is, of course, if Prison Ministries and other religious groups are truly interested in working in a non-sectarian way to change the lives of prison inmates, not simply winning more converts to their faith. If it is the latter, the government cannot be a participant.
I think i am almost definately going to do this one.