FFRF Challenges "Faith-based" Prison Ministry

Sues State of New Mexico

God always comes first, family second, and all else is secondary."

A state-funded fundamentalist Christian prison ministry program ("God pod") in a women's prison in New Mexico is being challenged in federal court by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a state/church watchdog.

The Foundation filed suit yesterday in the Federal District of New Mexico. The lawsuit marks the sixth faith-based challenge by the national association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep state and church separate. The Foundation has brought and won more legal challenges against the "faith-based initiative" than any other group.

The Foundation, as a plaintiff, is joined by six taxpaying New Mexico Foundation members: Martin Boyd, M.D., Jesse V. Chavez; Ernie and Sabina Hirshman; Peter Viviano, and Paul Weinbaum.

Defendants are: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; Joe R. Williams, Secretary of the New Mexico Corrections Department; Homer Gonzales, coordinator of faith-based programs for the New Mexico Corrections department; Bill Snodgrass, warden, New Mexico Women's Correctional Facility, and the Corrections Corporation of America.

The extent to which "faith-based" programs are being promoted in New Mexico prisons is indicated by a recent statement by Corrections Secretary Joe Williams. He told the American Correctional Conference in Phoenix in January 2005: "Don't forget that Jesus Christ himself was a prisoner" (The Santa Fe Reporter, March 9. 2005).

The State of New Mexico contracts with the private Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to provide prison services. CCA, the largest private provider of prison services in the country, manages the women's prison in Grants, N. M., which offers an exclusively faith-based segregation pod. Officially, the Grants program is called the "Life Principles Community/Crossings Program."

The Foundation complaint notes the faith-based program by CCA is billed as a "franchise-like" approach to providing faith-based programming in all their prisons. CCA is the nation's largest provider of prison services to the government, and is the nation's fifth largest owner and operator of correctional and detention facilities, operating at least 63 facilities, with a total design capacity of about 67,000 beds in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Only the federal government and four states own and operate more facilities.

About a year ago, CCA partnered with the Chicago-based Institute in Basic Life Principles, a fundamentalist Christian ministry run by Bill Gothard, who is controversial even within the ranks of evangelicals.

Gothard's The Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) is openly established "for the purpose of introducing people to the Lord Jesus Christ." Its workbook materials, which are given to women prisoners, break down "basic life principles" into categories such as "Moral Purity," "Yielding Rights" and "Proper Submission." It provides "training on how to find success by following God's principles found in Scripture" and emphasizes "obedience."

"Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord," enjoins IBLP material. "Courting" replaces "dating." Women are instructed to obey their husbands, preserve marriage at all costs, and, as Christians, to respect, obey and submit to church and government. Church and state and their rulers exist because of God's will, the IBLP dictates.

"Must we continue to respect an evil ruler as a minister of God?" is one question in an IBLP workbook. "YES" is the answer.

"The content of the faith-based programming provided by Corrections Corporation of America is intended to convert people to a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity," the Foundation complaint notes. Women receive materials asking, "Have you received Jesus Christ as your Personal Savior?"

They are told, "The first function of faith is to believe in Christ for salvation."

"The Holy Spirit takes up residence in your Spirit and confirms that you are a Christian. . . Disobeying the promptings of the Holy Spirit will cause Him to be grieved and will quench His power in your life."

The religious program "represents a very literal, overtly patriarchal and highly authoritarian understanding of the proper relationship with Jesus Christ," alleges the legal complaint.

CCA, the complaint continues, "has taken a leadership role and extended a commitment in its mission to bring faith-based programs to prisons." The Grants women's prison has formerly partnered with Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, School of Christ International, Child Evangelism Fellowship, Champions for Life, Kairos Horizon and Theotherapy. Its religious partnerships have been exclusively Christian.

The corporation seeks to institute "faith-based segregation pods" in every prison that it operates, considering faith-based programs the "preferred tool to change inmate behavior."

The Grants "God pod," in which women live apart from other inmates, includes scripture-based books and movies, and an intimate living area with more privileges. The pod is less crowded, quieter and offers better furnishings than what is available to other inmates.

Women are given spiritual counseling, attend religious meetings, conduct "prayer walks," memorize the New Testament and are mandated to stay involved in "a faith community" upon release. More than 700 hours are spent in these "faith-based" and related activities.

Women may not regularly watch TV and are only exposed to devotional music, with even Christian rock banned: "Only God can free a 'rock addiction' from the bondage of Satan's strongholds," IBLP material cautions.

Inmates are expressly taught that "God is in control," and that they can leave crime because of a transformative belief in a higher power who will turn their lives around. The program is premised on "God always coming first, and family second, and all else secondary."

The state's goal is to sign up 245 in faith-based programming at New Mexico Women's Correctional Facility.

The religious program is funded by New Mexico taxpayers and appropriated by the New Mexico Corrections Department.

The complaint notes: "Faith-based programming provided by the New Mexico Corrections Department touts the alleged importance and power of Christian faith as being necessary to lead a crime-free life." In authorizing the promotion of religious spirituality and faith, the state is violating the separation between church and state.

The Foundation and its plaintiffs are seeking to declare the program a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as well as a court order enjoining the defendants from continuing to provide faith-based programming or using state funds to promote, advance or endorse the establishment of religion.

"The Foundation is grateful to its New Mexico plaintiffs, who are integral in assuring the Foundation has standing to sue over these egregious violations," said Foundation co-president Dan Barker.

"We consider this 'God pod' an outrageous misuse of taxpayer money to proselytize and indoctrinate the ultimate 'captive audience' of women prisoners--not just in fundamentalist Christianity, but in an antifeminist program predicated on women's subjugation," added co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The Foundation's goal is not only to stop this publicly-funded indoctrination program in New Mexico, but to keep it from spreading around the nation.

The case, Freedom From Religion Foundation et al. v. Gov. Richardson, 05-CV-1168, was filed on November 7, 2005, in the Federal District of New Mexico.

Read the Complaint.

Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to the Foundation's Legal Fund.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.
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The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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