FFRF Sues Federal Bureau of Prisons over Faith-based Prison Programs

FFRF v. Gonzales Filed in Federal Court in Major Challenge

FFRF Files Second Major Faith-based Challenge in a Week

(MADISON, WIS.) In its ninth major lawsuit challenging the faith-based initiative,” and its second new federal challenge in a week, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit yesterday in federal court challenging faith-based prison programs at the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The lawsuit challenges previous multifaith programs set up by the Bureau, as well as the Justice Department’s announced plans to expand “single-faith” programs into as many as six more federal prisons.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin, names Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales; Federal Bureau of Prisons director Harley G. Lappin, and Clay Johnson III, director, Office of Management and Budget. Plaintiffs include the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog group of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics), co-presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, and founder Anne Nicol Gaylor.

The Bureau of Prisons’ Life Connections Program, instigated by the Department of Justice Task Force for Faith-based and Community Initiatives, has been operating since at least 2003. The 18-month program is “designed to effect personal transformation using the participant’s faith commitment,” the Foundation complaint states. It was created by Bureau Chaplain Kendall Hughes as a faith-based model “based on the premise that inmates should pursue, nurture and commit themselves to religious faith.”

Implemented by the Religious Services Branch of the Bureau of Prisons, Life Connections is operating in at least five federal institutions: the Federal Correctional Institution at Milan, Mich., the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Ks., the Federal Medical Center at Carswell, Texas, the Federal Correctional Institution at Petersburg, Va., and the Federal Correctional Institution at Victorville, Calif.

The Bureau is now soliciting proposals for a “single-faith” residential re-entry program at one or more piloted institutions: Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution, the Beaumont Federal Correctional Complex, the Hazelton United States Penitentiary, the Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution, the Edgefield Federal Correctional Institution, and the Tucson Federal Correctional Institution.

In a Washington Post story (April 29), Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci L. Billingsley was quoted saying the bureau potentially was free to set up a Roman Catholic program at one prison, an evangelical program at another, etc.

The Life Connections Facilitators hired by the Bureau of Prisons must have a degree with a major in religious studies, religious education or related curriculum. The facilitator coordinates all components of the Life Connections Program.

“The direct funding of religious programming by the defendants Gonzales and Lappin, in their official capacities, is not intended merely to accommodate the religious free exercise rights of inmates, but rather the Bureau of Prisons’ religious programming is based upon the intent to encourage and promote the development of faith among inmates,” the complaint alleges.

Such activities “violate the fundamental principle of the separation of church and state by using Congressional taxpayer appropriations to intentionally support activities that endorse religion.”

The lawsuit also alleges that the Office of Management and Budget engages “in activities that create an atmosphere intended to cause federal agencies to increase their contracting with faith-based organizations merely because the organizations are faith-based.” The complaint points out that the Office of Management and Budget gives a “report card” to each major federal agency which apparently grades the agencies on the extent to which they have disbursed or increased their appropriations to faith-based agencies.

The Foundation seeks a judgment declaring that the Congressional taxpayer disbursements for the Life Connections Program violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, an order enjoining the defendants from continuing such appropriations, an order requiring the defendants to establish regulations and oversight to ensure future funded activities do not include religion as a substantive integral component, and an order requiring the defendants to establish regulations ensuring activities are not funded which include a single faith as an integral component.

Last week, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a broad lawsuit against the Department of Veteran Affairs over intermingling of faith and spirituality with medical care. Its ongoing cases include a challenge of state funding of a fundamentalist Christian prison program in a New Mexico women’s prison, and a lawsuit against the creation of the White House office of faith-based initiatives. This week, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Administration, which sought an en banc review of a January ruling by a 3-judge panel reinstating the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lawsuit. The 3-judge panel ruled the Foundation’s taxpayer plaintiffs had standing to sue. In the May 3 ruling, the panel, which voted 7-4 not to rehear the case, strongly suggested that the issue of whether FFRF has standing to sue should be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Gonzales, Case No. 06-C-0244-S, has been assigned to Judge John Shabaz, U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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