Judge outlaws prison group’s Bible program

A judge in Iowa ruled that a program for inmates in the Newton Correctional Facility was a Bible-based prison program that violated the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause by using state funds to promote Christianity to inmates.

Prison Fellowship Ministries was sued in 2003 by Americans United for Separation of Church and State led by Rev. Barry Lynn.

Lynn’s group accused Prison Fellowship Ministries of giving preferential treatment to inmates participating in the program. They were given special visitation rights, movie-watching privileges, access to computers and access to classes needed for early parole.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt called the perks “seemingly minor benefits” that constituted unfair treatment to those not in the religious program. Despite any claims of rehabilitating inmates, the program “impermissibly endorses religion,” Pratt wrote.

Judge outlaws prison group’s Bible program

Prison Fellowship was founded by convicted Watergate conspirator Charles Colson. Its mission, according to its website:

Prison Fellowship reaches out to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families both as an act of service to Jesus Christ and as a contribution to restoring peace to our cities and communities endangered by crime. For the best way to transform our communities is to transform the people within those communities—and truly restorative change comes only through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

The focus of our ministry includes fellowshipping with Jesus (including teaching others to live and look at life from a biblical perspective), visiting prisoners, and welcoming the children of prisoners.

About Prison Fellowship

From the text of the ruling – we find the reason why Prison Fellowship and its InterChange program in Iowa violated the 1st Amendment:

InnerChange was created to meet the needs of state or federal prisons for a private provider who could deliver a values-based12 prisoner rehabilitation program. InnerChange’s religious commitments mirror those of Prison Fellowship—the parties stipulated, in fact, that what is taught in the InnerChange inmate program does not contradict the Prison Fellowship Statement of Faith.

The InnerChange program is a faith-based program designed to transform prisoners into good citizens, to reduce the recidivism rate of current inmates, and to prepare inmates for their return to society by providing educational, ethical, and religious instruction. In its own words: This mission of InnerChange is to create and maintain a prison environment that fosters respect for God’s law and rights of others, and to encourage the spiritual and moral regeneration of prisoners. Therefore, they may develop responsible and productive relationships with their Creator, families and communities. Pls.’ Ex. 35 (InnerChange website, Sept. 9, 2005).

The InnerChange program meshes the Evangelical Christian religious message of its parent organization, Prison Fellowship, with a pre-release correctional model. This produces a unique approach to pre-release prison programming specific to InnerChange, which InnerChange refers to as a transformational, rather than a therapeutic, model. Rather than exclusively relying on and utilizing scientific and medical theories to address criminal behavior,

InnerChange incorporates a supernatural approach to an inmate’s recidivist behavior by locating that inmate’s problems in disobedience to God, or sin. The only remedy to the problem of sin, InnerChange maintains, is through a miraculous delivery by God—specifically, God in Christ.13

Again, as state actors, InnerChange and Prison Fellowship employees cloak themselves in the mantel of government. As providers of a state-funded treatment program, they are burdened with the same responsibilities of any state employee: to respect the civil rights of all persons, including the First Amendment’s prohibition on indoctrinating others in their form of religion. In the context of this case, the Defendants have no legitimate interest in the accommodation of their own religious beliefs, but just the opposite. As state actors, their interest in “avoiding an Establishment Clause violation ‘may be characterized as compelling.’”

There are many factors that drive the conclusion that the InnerChange program is pervasively sectarian. The program requires attendance at worship services, religious community meetings, and weekly revivals, and orders its participants to engage in daily religious devotional practice. Furthermore, participants are required to lead prayers and share, publically, a personal devotional at the weekly community meeting. InnerChange instructors and employees must sign the Prison Fellowship Statement of Faith. The curriculum is restricted and does not stray from the religious beliefs stated in the Statement of Faith. InnerChange teachers and counselors are allowed to teach only a pre-set, imposed religious curriculum authorized by InnerChange and Prison Fellowship. Though an inmate could, theoretically, graduate from InnerChange without converting to Christianity, the coercive nature of the program demands obedience to its dogmas and doctrines.

Americans United v. Prison Fellowship (2006)

Also check out the release from Americans United:

Federal Court Strikes Down Tax Funding of Iowa Prison Program


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  1. Anonymous
    July 12, 2006

    For more on this, check out Fields, “Perks for Prisoners Who Pray,” 2005 U Chi Legal F 541.

  2. Wolfgang DelaSangre
    August 17, 2006

    Watch as the success rate in rehab drops!

    And later, how your toaster can improve your golf swing! Stay tuned, to “Keep-Religion-To-Yourself-Channel” Action News!

    Seriously, part of the Christian faith is spreading it, telling people about Jesus and leading them to Him. Ultimately, it’s their choice whether or not they want to believe, even after the evidence is presented to them. If the government is going to prevent us from doing that, then they are, by legal definition, restricting and limiting the freedom to practice a specific religion. And that, if I am not mistaken, is CLEARLY defined as Against-The-Law in the First Amendment.

    Watch as Doug tells me that this counts as government support of religion, despite the fact that allowing it and supporting it are two different things.

  3. August 17, 2006

    You need to read the legal opinion written by the judge in the case – I believe there is a link in the post. The facts of the case show the program wasn’t voluntary in regard to religion. In order to “pass” the course you had to convert and those in the program got privileges that other prisoners were excluded from. The program was the only one available. But you know that if you had read the legal facts of the case.

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