News Non-Consensual Christianity
posted by December 9 at 18:22 PMon
Today’s New York Times has a really interesting story about a legal debate that’s been building in Iowa for the last year or so: a medium security prison in Newton, IA has a special facility for certain inmates… it’s got private bathrooms, doors with real doorknobs, many more computers and a better visiting area than the rest of the prison. All inmates have to do to live in this special, segregated wing is to be enrolled in a rehabilitation program called “Inner Change”. And what’s Inner Change? An Evangelical course where inmates must accept Jesus as the Savior, participate in revivals, prayer-groups and Bible reading sessions. In June, a federal judge ruled that this program was unconstitutional and would have to be discontinued.
The ruling was based on the grounds that public dollars were funding a religious group, but I think the more important argument to make is that faith-based programs like this (of which there are dozens around the country) violate the freedom of religion of Newton inmates. I volunteered in Newton prison last year as a history teacher. Half my class was Muslim — they wouldn’t have been allowed to enjoy the privileges of the program. The other half of my class just thought the program was for crackpots — they didn’t want to have to follow crazy church rules all day, even if it meant not having access to private bathrooms and nice visiting rooms. In an environment where people are not considered entirely in control of their own actions or choices (all sex in a prison, for example, is classified as nonconsesual), how is it not violating everyone’s freedom of religion by giving them major incentive to be only Christian?
Anyway, this whole ridiculous program stems from the Bush administration’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative, which emphasizes using churches and other religious organizations to fill community service needs that are usually met by the government. So instead of there being a branch of the Iowa justice system that’s responsible for managing a rehabilitation program at Newton, funds are shuffled off onto a private faith-based organization to run the thing. Inner Change was the only rehabilitation program at Newton that has actual funding… Alcoholics Anonymous, English language classes, etc. are all run by volunteers.
What really bugs me is that religious converters get away with it because, after all, it’s for a good cause. The prisoners in the program are becoming more stable people, right? Shouldn’t the most important thing be that they’re efficiently and successfully help people?
In another case early last year, a federal judge struck down a federal grant in 2003 to MentorKids USA, a ministry based in Phoenix, to provide mentors for the children of prisoners. In a case filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., the judge noted that the exclusively Christian mentors had to regularly assess whether the young people in their care seemed “to be progressing in relationship with God.” In a program newsletter offered as evidence, its director said, “Our goal is to see every young adult choose Christ.”… “The court’s decision meant that there were 50 kids we could have served that we were not able to serve.”
That’s such irksome logic because it makes people who criticize Christian-conversion groups look like heartless rationalists — it’s more important whether or not a program violates the Constitution than whether it helps people live better lives. And that’s what happens: when these programs are found in violation of the First Amendment, they shut their doors and the kids, prisoners, kids of prisoners or whoever they’re helping get left in the cold. If they really cared about improving peoples’ lives rather than just pushing their own agenda, they would find some way to keep working legally by adapting their message or requirements. Judges shouldn’t have to choose between enforcing the First Amendment and making sure those in need get equal help and services. That’s the problem with the financial and political push for faith-based programs replacing (or being instated in place of) secular programs: they approach solving society’s probelms with a specific and intrinsically exclusionary agenda.
I’m just afraid that when the Newton prison program gets shut down, that facility will go unused. I can totally see the private toilets and nice visiting rooms being vacant for a long time — maybe the prison will even scrap the idea of an honor-wing altogether and say, “Sorry, boys, it’s the court’s fault.”