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Bible-Based Prison Treatment Program Shelved

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Federal Bureau of Prisons announced yesterday, it is suspending plans for a Bible-based treatment program at six penitentiaries. The move comes less than a week after a federal judge ruled a prison ministry program in Iowa, unconstitutional. As Eric Niiler reports, the ruling could be a blow to the Bush administration's drive to mix religion and some government services.

ERIC NIILER, reporting:

At Iowa's Newton Correctional facility, inmates receive drug counseling and learn skills like how to get a job on the outside. The lessons also come along with a big dose of the Bible. Prison officials say the faith-based effort calms inmates and prevents their return to crime. But a federal judge ruled, last week, that the program directly promotes religion and ordered it stopped.

Barry Lynn runs the Washington D.C. group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He sued on behalf of inmates who did not like the Christian treatment program.

Mr. BARRY LYNN (Director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State): A prison just cannot set up, within its own walls, an evangelical Christian congregation, or any other religious institution, and have such a program upheld by the federal courts.

NIILER: Lynn said these prisoners got special perks, like movies and computer access, that non-evangelical prisoners were not offered. That might be so, but it also kept them out of trouble - that's according to Mark Early, Director of the Prison Fellowship Ministries. That group was founded nearly 30 years ago, by a former Nixon administration aid Charles Colson.

Early say the ruling discriminates against programs that use religion to change behavior in a positive way.

Mr. MARK EARLY (Director, Prison Fellowship Ministries): It basically says to faith-based groups, that you cannot compete on a level playing field in providing rehabilitative services to prisoners of a certain faith tradition, who have volunteered to receive those services?

NIILER: Early says many prisons are doing away with rehab programs because of tight state budgets, and that non-profit religious programs can step in and fill the gaps. Jim Towey ran White House's faith-based initiative from 2002 until leaving last month. He says, the bottom line is that faith based programs make a big difference.

Mr. JIM TOWEY (Former Head of the White House faith-based initiative): We're looking at the results, which is the transformed man or woman behind bars. And if you don't help them deal with their addiction and alcohol problem, the minute they get out of prison they're going to go back to the drugs and booze, and they're going to recidivate.

NILLER: Under Towey, the White House has given out more than $2 billion over the past four years, to charities that mix religion and social welfare. And many states have followed suit. In Florida, convicts can serve time in a church based or a regular prison. Each get the same privileges. George Washington University law professor, Robert Tuttle, says that the key.

Mr. ROBERT TUTTLE (Law Professor, George Washington University): The way to do it constitutionally, is first to make sure that prisoners have a lot of choices available to them.

NIILER: Tuttle says prisoners who wanted to kick their drug habit or learn to read, should not to force to accept Jesus as their savior at the same time. As for the Iowa program, the prison ministries group plans to appeal the ruling later this week.

For NPR News, I'm Eric Niiler. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Niiler
Eric Niiler reports for NPR's national desk. His work can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and other NPR newsmagazines. Before moving to his current post, Niiler was a reporter for NPR's Day to Day program, and also filed pieces for NPR's national and science desks.