Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Church Comes First! New Prison Fellowship Ministries Reentry Programs

In an article published this week on ReligionDispatches.org, Mark Bergen discusses a new development of the rapidly spreading Prison Fellowship Ministries program. For those that are unfamiliar, Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) states that their mission is “to seek the transformation of prisoners and their reconciliation to God, family, and community through the power and truth of Jesus Christ.” This program was launched by Charles “Chuck” Colson, who was incarcerated for 7 months himself after the notorious Watergate scandal, in 1976. PFM then went inside the prisons to serve as an “alternative” rehabilitation program for prisoners. For further information on the values and history of the PFM please see their website.

This article on RD deals directly with a new PFM program called Out4Life. Out4Life began in Louisiana and has gained tremendous popularity recently and will be spreading to more than 10 other states in the coming years. Out4Life’s basic structure will vary in each state; however, the basic structure “will mirror the one in Louisiana, set in place with “a partnership with state and church,” says Jean Bush, Out4Life’s National Director. Is this a viable partnership?

What is of particular interest here is not the fact that PFM wishes to help ex and current criminals change their lives through Jesus Christ, but that it is a government funded program within the prison system. Therefore issue for programs like Out4Life is this: Is it a violation of the Establishment Clause for the government to sponsor and aid a religious, and clearly evangelical Christian, program?

Dr. Winnifred Sullivan published her book Prison Religion last year after being called as an expert witness in the case in Iowa involving the PFM and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Her book is a detailed account of her experience as a witness, the trial, and the programs in place in the Iowa prison. When questioned by the defense on behalf of the PFM, Sullivan was frequently pushed to agree that on paper PFM is a non-sectarian group with a completely secular purpose: to transform prisoners. However, I defy anyone who looks at the PFM website listed above and reads their mission statement and core values section to claim that this is an inherently secular and not a religious group.

With that in mind, is there a clear violation of the Establishment Clause? Judge Pratt found that in Iowa there most certainly was. However, the PFM continues to grow inside and outside of the prison walls. In fact, President Obama recently set aside $144 million to support these reentry programs put in place by former President George W. Bush. Despite the fact that PFM has bipartisan support, is it constitutionally legal for the government to support and endorse such overtly religious programs? It is my understanding that with the precedents set up in cases such as Everson v. Board of Education there is to be a “high and impregnable wall” between Church and State. Recently, it seems that this wall has become a 2-way swinging or revolving door. If the government wishes to continue to state that they remain totally and completely neutral to religion, this wall must remain high and impregnable. If it does not, I have a feeling that we will see many more cases like the one in which Dr. Sullivan testified in Iowa.


nedwards13 said...

This is such a tough call in my opinion. I do agree that it may very well go against the establishment clause because there is government intervention within religion, in this case the program that is Christian and being funded by the government. Although what I say may not be politically correct it is what I feel should be considered. In class we were discussing that fact that in the early years on the established prison system it was used for a place of rehabilitation. I hadn’t the slightest idea, I was sure that they purpose was for the safety of humanity and the rest of society as well as deterrence. Come to find out that later on that is in fact what it became used for but none the less rehab is still a wonderful idea and approach to put a positive spin on incarceration. I think that this idea of having Christian fellowship inside the prison for rehab purposes is a wonderful way to help these people better themselves and to realize that they have a true potential that they can acquire. Bias and jaded as the opinion may sound I am sure that at least a small if not larger percentage of these people that are submitted to the rehab come out a better person or at the least have better intentions for the future. The question although then arises what about other religions? What if you are Jewish and you need a Rabbi to come and enlighten you with Kabala? It opens the argument that the government should sponsor all religions or no religion at all. I will bite the bullet and say that if this program (because rehab programs a lot of the times are overlooked due to the substantial amount of money that they cost) is something that as a tax payer I would sponsor if it meant that when a convicted felon comes out he is less likely to hurt my family. Although I am aware there is no guarantee of such, a hope is better then nothing?

Teresa M said...

Perhaps part of our dilemma in this situation is created by the fact that no one, including the Supreme Court as far as we have studied, has bothered to define what is meant by "establishment." There is a general understanding of what is meant, but no definitive understanding. Just because a religiously oriented program exists in a prison system does not necessarily mean the government has established a religion or religion in general. The prison system has offered a means of reducing recidivism through religious volunteerism with a relatively small expense. I am not at all sure that offering is the same as establishing. Sullivan's book specifically stated the case was one of establishment rather than free exercise. I question this statement. If other religions form the kind of program ministry as PFM, they should certainly be allowed to offer prisoners access to religiously based help. As for the non=religious prisoners who have no desire to participate in a religious program to help them in their post-prison life, secular programs (which seem to be less successful in reducing recidivism) will just have to do. If secular programs are statistically less successful, then we have an obligation to understand why. Sometimes, the issue of Constitutionality seems to conflict with common sense.

John S. said...

Whether this program violates the Establishment Clause or not is a matter of opinion. And this is the inherent problem with the American legal system's approach to religion. As Sullivan rightly points out, "religion" is a difficult term and may not be useful in a legal context, especially if that term is understood as a literal church and not something less concrete. Unfortunately, but using the term "religion" without definition AND being in a position where "some" religion may be acceptable without violating Establishment leaves us forever at the mercy of a given court's opinion of what constitutes religion, and now that we've cracked open the door, how much religion we allow to come in before we have a problem. As such each case is different and how each member of the court understands the terms in question accounts for their ruling. The lack of clarity surrounding "religion" therefore authorizes legal shenanigans in the name of religion as it tries to fit itself into an acceptable framework that will allow it to slip past the porous and ever-changing gate.

Gavin C. said...

Sullivan’s book provides an interesting evaluation of the legal dilemma posed to courts concerning disestablishment. However, while her claim that religion is not a useful term in the legal context may be a valid observation, barring an amendment to the Constitution, “religion” is a term that the courts will have to work with. It is true that Everson proposed the understanding of a “high and impenatrable wall between church and state,” but later cases like Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) and the “Equal Access” cases have suggested that it might be necessary look at the effects of the law or policy in question. With this in mind, might it not be acceptable to permit a program that violates the Establishment Clause if that program contributes a significant improvement to society? If the effect of PFM is actually to lower the rate of recidivism—and I do not know if there is evidence that supports this—even if it also results in some of the prisoners converting to Evangelical Christianity, does it not benefit society to allow such a program to exist. The prisoners who take part in PFM and IFI programs are adults, who are free to make decisions about their religious beliefs, so any conversions that result from the programs can be considered incidental. If the PFM and IFI programs are more successful than alternative programs, perhaps they should be permitted. Of course, the question that might really need to be answered is why are the other, secular programs not as successful, and what can be done to improve them?

josh l. said...

At one point in "Prison Religion" Sullivan writes that the battle over the Establishment Clause is a distraction from the real issue. Instead of focusing on whether a program is religious or secular, she claims, we should focus on whether "a particular solution is a reasonable way to create a society we want to live in" (179). I think I agree with her but I do wonder what such an alternative might look like. Sullivan is good on critique, but I do worry that her alternative is too idealistic in some ways.

Deciding whether programs like PFM are good and "create model citizens" will require a radical change in debate, one that I am not sure over two hundred years of Supreme Court precedence will let go of easily. But it is interesting to start thinking beyond the issue of Church and State and the Establishment Clause interpretations of the Supreme Court that continue to be problematic.