Thursday, September 22, 2011

Jesus or Jail?

In 2006, convicted drug offender Janene Cowles was given the option of spending one year in the Ada County Jail or participating in a discipleship program at the Boise Rescue Mission. This program is a Christian one, and requires that all participants share in that common faith. Although Cowles was not a Christian, she wrote a letter to the facility explaining that she was looking to regain a sense of inner peace and to change her life “through God.” After being informed of the intense nature of the work done at the mission, and after having accepted these conditions, Cowles was admitted into the program.
While living at the mission, Cowles states that she was “expected to pray, sing hymns, lay hands on the afflicted and even take part in exorcisms to cast out demons…” She was not permitted to listen to secular music or read secular books, and she was required to attend church every Sunday. Cowles, after complaining of being uncomfortable with the Pentecostal structure of the program, and the duties that were expected of her, was removed from the program and returned to jail.

Citing the federal Fair Housing Act, Cowles and another mission resident sued the organization on the basis of religious discrimination in a place of residence. They were backed by the Intermountain Fair Housing Council.
A district court ruled in favor of the mission, and the 9th Circuit Court has affirmed the ruling. It cites a religious exemption within the Fair Housing Act that allows religious organizations to limit access to their charitable services to those who practice the same religion. The full ruling of the 9th Circuit Court may be found here.

In the Americans United op-ed, Rob Boston states that he would agree with the court’s ruling if the Rescue Mission were a “purely privately funded operation with no ties to the state.” Because the state offered no non-religious alternative to prison, according to the article Janene Cowles was given the option to “become a Pentecostal Christian or continue to sit in [her] cell. That simply isn’t right.”

Therefore, the question that I will focus on here is one that outlines perhaps the most salient issue at stake in this case, and which was not considered by the court. Does the offering of this religious program by the government as an alternative to prison without a secular alternative constitute an establishment of religion? Rob Boston of Americans United says yes. I agree with this position at least in part, but the issue is much more complex than it seems on the surface.

This situation is extremely important for our understanding of establishment. What exactly constitutes an establishment of religion and how should we adjudicate in different circumstances? These are the questions to which I now turn.

Janene Cowles was convicted on counts of drug offense, of which the ordinary punitive response is prison. The op-ed states that the government was attempting to establish a religion, specifically Christianity, by offering an alternative to prison whose purpose was to indoctrinate its participants in this religion. It bases its opinion primarily on the fact that no secular alternative was offered, but it overlooks the fact that prison is itself an alternative. Ms. Cowles was in no way forced to participate in the program. In fact, she was actually discouraged by the mission’s requirement that all participants must be Christian. Still, she wrote a letter explaining her desire to change her life “through God,” and therefore made a personal choice, no coercion involved.

The argument could be made, however, that the state is funneling individuals into this program because the mission is far more attractive that “sitting in your cell for a year,” and this may indeed be true. Any religious and secular options offered by the government should be equally intense punitively and no added benefits should be provided for choosing a religious option.

I feel that this issue hinges on the question of whether secular drug rehabilitation programs were offered within the prison setting that would allow individuals an equal alternative to the religious option. If this program was merely a religious mission that sought to heal drug offenders through God, and no secular equivalent was offered as an alternative, then I strongly believe that this would constitute an establishment of religion. However, I do not feel that this religious alternative in itself constitutes establishment. The nature of the alternatives is key in considering issues such as these.

Does the option to participate in this Christian-based mission constitute an establishment of religion by the government even if secular alternatives are offered? Is the government attempting to “funnel” individuals into Christianity through this program? What do you think?


Harry R. said...

I feel that the nature of the religious organization is crucial in this case. There is only one church which is participating in this program and it is a very extreme church which intends to convert its members. This program attempts to make all members united in support of their beliefs. This does not support the state interest of rehabilitating criminals. Rather, I feel that this program solely attempts to gain more support for a specific religious group. Since the focus is primarily religious and not on an overall secular good, I feel that this is an unconstitutional program.

JaneneCowles said...

May I add: I motioned my sentencing judge asking permission to go into a program other than the Boise Rescue Mission's. She denied the motion and hand wrote on that court document; if the defendant does not complete this program prison is the only option! Then signed her name.
Does that add fuel to the fire, or what?