Prayer in Prisons Now Unconstitutional

Rebekah Montgomery | Contributing Writer | Monday, July 17, 2006

Prayer in Prisons Now Unconstitutional

Evangelical? If you run a soup kitchen, prison ministry, or a home for the mentally disabled, to stay operational you’ll need to rethink — or hide — that label if U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt’s ruling against Prison Fellowship Ministries’ InnerChange is allowed to stand. Otherwise, it could very well cost your ministry a lot of money in punitive damages, or even completely shut down your outreach.

 

A great deal of Judge Pratt’s negative ruling centers on his own concocted definition of evangelical Christianity, said Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship (PFM). “His (Pratt’s) definition will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, because of the erroneous nature of his definition and its caricature-like quality.”

 

According to Judge Pratt’s definition, you’ll be surprised to learn that Evangelicals:

“tend to be anti-sacramental, which means it downplays the traditional sacramental Christian events — baptism, holy communion or Eucharist, marriage, ordination, etc. — as appropriate ways to interact or meet with God… Whereas traditional, organized religious groups, such as Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, and Lutherans, employ a structured, highly liturgical style of worship, Evangelical Christian worship is free form with individual pastors given authority to determine how services are planned. For instance, Evangelical Christians have embraced contemporary music forms and multi-media presentations” (Case 4:03-cv-90074-RP-TJS Document 367).

Yikes! Contemporary music and multi-media presentations may threaten the constitutionality of charitable programs? It appears so, if Judge Pratt’s ruling is allowed to stand.

 

Pratt also ruled:

“The Prison Fellowship and InnerChange belief in the substitutionary and atoning death of Jesus, which reflects a legalistic understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus, likewise, is not shared by many Christians… Belief in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus is also not shared by many other, non-Evangelical Christians… Belief in an imminent, personal, and visible second coming of Jesus Christ, as held by Prison Fellowship and InnerChange, does not comport with the belief held by other non-Evangelical Christians that, if a second coming of Christ occurs, its nature is unknown, or is more spiritualized” (Case 4:03-cv-90074-RP-TJS Document 367).

And possibly most egregious of all Evangelical activities, Pratt ruled - by definition of what is believed - everything they do is construed to convert someone and is therefore unconstitutional.

 

Pratt’s ruling came about because of a suit filed in U. S. District Court in Iowa by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a self-proclaimed Washington D.C. “liberty watchdog group,” against PFM and InnerChange specifically.

 

InnerChange is a highly structured program run by PFM in ten states that receives tax dollars to educate prisoners academically as well as help with job placement and life skills. It is proven by a study (2004 University of Pennsylvania Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society) to dramatically reduce recidivism. While tax monies are used for non-sectarian purposes, 60 percent of InnerChange’s budget is made up of donations. But the heart of the suit is InnerChange’s bedrock principal that real change comes through the teachings of Jesus Christ, which is now ruled to be a disqualifier for faith-based initiative dollars.

 

Said Earley: “If this definition is allowed to stand, others — lawyers and courts — can define Evangelical Christianity in an erroneous and caricature-ish way ‘as trying to convert someone,’ and set the stage for any evangelical ministry in any setting connected with the government -- whether a soup kitchen or a home for the mentally disabled, Salvation Army, or the services provided by Catholic Charities to adults in public institutions that have requested religious services -- to be ruled against anytime there is a challenge to the established cause.”

 

In a groundbreaking move, to add more teeth to his ruling and further discourage Evangelical-faith-based partnerships, Pratt has ruled that InnerChange must reimburse $1.7 million to the state of Iowa and that the program be discontinued.

 

But the use of tax money by an Evangelical group does not seem to be Pratt’s bedrock complaint – that is religion et al.

 

“Even if this program in Iowa was fully funded by private dollars,” said Earley, “in Pratt’s opinion it would be unconstitutional. This has far-ranging ramifications for any religious group. We’re providing religious services and ministry to prisoners. But his ruling means that no one can provide religious services to anyone in a governmental setting, even if it is fully funded by private dollars.”

 

In essence, the same federal courts that took religion out of the schools are now determined to take religion — and hope — out of prisons. There is hope that Pratt’s ruling will be reversed upon appeal. If it is, it will be the only way prisoners in America will have a prayer.


Rebekah Montgomery is the editor of Right to the Heart of Women e-zine, a publisher at Jubilant Press, and the author of numerous books on spiritual growth. She can be contacted for comments or speaking engagements at www.rebekahmontgomery.com

 

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