The Freedom From Religion Foundation is warning the Wisconsin Department of Corrections against a ploy to convert inmates to Christian ministers.
Trinity International University, a private evangelical Christian university based in Illinois, has recently started offering a bachelor’s degree at Waupun Correctional Institution in Biblical Studies. Although the school offers 35 bachelor’s programs at campuses around the country, this is the only one offered at this correctional institution.
The Wisconsin Department of Corrections works with a nonprofit organization, the Wisconsin Inmate Education Association, to facilitate its partnership with Trinity. According to the group’s website, four of the seven members of the association’s board of directors hold degrees related to Christian ministration, and two others highlight their experience bringing Christianity to incarcerated populations. One of the board members said he has a “passion for working to positively reach the prison population with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” The group disturbingly refers to the biblical studies program as “Operation Transformation.”
Upon completion of the program, inmates essentially become missionaries, or “field mentors,” as the program refers to them. They are encouraged to counsel other inmates at Waupun Correctional Institution or any future facility they may be sent to.
FFRF is alerting the state’s Department of Corrections to the flagrant Establishment Clause breaches of this program. It is indisputably illegal for correctional institutions to condition any benefit to inmates on their attendance at religious programs. And, FFRF notes, it is no defense to assert that participation in this program is voluntary. The Constitution requires that the state must remain neutral between religion and nonreligion.
If the Wisconsin Department of Corrections sincerely wants to positively impact inmates’ lives through education, a course in Biblical Studies is not the route to go. There are a multitude of secular degree programs that would far better accomplish that objective, and no shortage of secular universities and nonprofit organizations to administer them.
“By all outward appearances, ‘Operation Transformation’ has never been about transforming inmates’ lives through education — it is about transforming prisoners into preachers,” writes FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara. “Whatever the metes and bounds of the Establishment Clause may be, it is beyond reasonable dispute that a state cannot turn a cellblock into a seminary.”
FFRF is requesting that the Wisconsin Department of Correction’s partnership with the Wisconsin Inmate Education Association and Trinity be terminated immediately. Additionally, open records requests have been sent to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and the Waupun Correctional Institute.
“This is one of the most glaring constitutional violations that we’ve seen,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The department must comply with its obligations to respect every single one of its inmate’s freedom of conscience.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Wisconsin-based, national nonprofit organization with 30,000 members across the country, including more than 1,300 in Wisconsin. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.