FFRF, freethinking groups urge Senate to eliminate religious proviso

The nation’s foremost secular groups, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, are asking the Senate to remove a religion-imposing provision in the proposed crime reform bill.

The First Step Act (S. 3649/H.R. 5682), currently under consideration, has a proviso that would violate the Constitution by foisting religious programs and services on incarcerated persons, and by funding religious programs and services with taxpayer dollars. Paragraph (1) (c) (ix) of subchapter 3635, Section 101 includes faith-based classes or services in its definition of an “evidence-based recidivism reduction program” that may be implemented by federal prisons and for which federal funding is authorized.

The direct federal funding of faith-based programs and services is unconstitutional, the five organizations write to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ranking Member Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. This provision violates the religious freedom of taxpayers at large. In order to protect freedom of religion for all Americans, including the 29 percent of Americans who hold no religious beliefs, government must be free from religion. Federal funding of faith-based programs that promulgate a specific religious doctrine violates the principle of government neutrality toward religion by compelling taxpayers to fund religious instructions, beliefs and practices.

Furthermore, the public provision of faith-based programs violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, assert FFRF, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Center for Inquiry and Secular Coalition for America. Faith-based programming would pressure individuals to abide by particular religious ideas that may not reflect, or may even violate, their deeply and sincerely held beliefs. In the context of a prison recidivism reduction program, incarcerated persons in these facilities and institutions will face an overwhelming incentive to accede to religious ideas that may be incompatible with their own beliefs in order to secure prompt release from incarceration. The federal government would be imposing religious beliefs and practices on a literally captive population, violating the neutrality toward religion and between religion and nonreligion, as required by the Establishment Clause.

Government neutrality toward religion is foundational to religious freedom for all. The religiously motivated provision undermines the laudable criminal justice reforms of the First Step Act and, indeed, places this bipartisan legislation at risk of a constitutional challenge. In the service of our Constitution — and as an acknowledgment of the diversity of belief and nonbelief in our country — the Senate must get rid of the proviso.

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.

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