Faith-based foolishness in Florida

Faith-based foolishness in Florida – Church & State

Edd Doerr

President George W Bush’s “faith-based” agenda may have been slowed in Congress, (whether temporarily or not remains to be seen) but his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, is pushing ahead as fast as possible.

On Christmas Eve 2003, Governor Bush dedicated a new “faith-based” state prison near Jacksonville. Of course, if religion helps to reduce recidivism, fine, but government–national, state, or local–has no business operating a religious institution. And Lawtey Correctional Institution is certainly religious, since it involves inmates in “prayer sessions, religious studies, choir practice, and religious counseling seven days a week.” Florida Corrections Department spokesman Sterling Ivey says that 35 to 40 percent of the institution’s curriculum will be devoted to religion. And it is a safe assumption that religion will tend strongly toward the more conservative end of the spectrum.

It goes without saying that prisoners should have free exercise of religion, consistent with reasonable security considerations, but that free exercise should apply to all prisoners of all faiths in all penal institutions. (It isn’t uncommon for prisoners of minority religions or of no religion to have less religious freedom than others.)

Among the objections to “faith-based” prisons in Florida or any other state are the following:

The Florida state constitution (Article

I, Section 3) provides that “No

revenue of the state or any political

subdivision thereof shall ever

be taken from the public treasury

directly or indirectly in aid of any

church, sect, or religious denomination

or in aid of any sectarian

institution.” At least thirty-seven

states have very similar provisions.

As long ago as 1947 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Everson v. Board of Education that “No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the federal government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa.”

“Faith-based” prisons, then, are out of sync with the U.S. and most state constitutions. They, along with Bush’s strong support for tax aid to “faith-based” private schools, suggest that the governor either doesn’t understand or doesn’t take seriously his oath to uphold the state and U.S. constitutions. This is reminiscent of Bush’s inaugural ceremony several years ago. It came across on C-SPAN radio more like a revival service than a serious political inauguration.

James Madison, the main architect of both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, summed the matter up nicely in his famous 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, which laid the groundwork for Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia religious liberty law and could be considered part of the legislative history of the First Amendment’s church-state separation principle. Out fourth President wrote that using “religion as an engine of civil policy” would be “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” And Benjamin Franklin got it right when he wrote that something is very wrong when a religion calls for the help of the “civil power.”

Correctional institution personnel would probably testify that clever inmates aren’t averse to putting on a cloak of religion to con prison officials or influence parole boards. If politicians can use religion, why can’t felons?

U.S. prisons, which currently house about two million inmates, can lower their costs and reduce recidivism without bending out of shape the proper state and national constitutional provisions separating religion and government. For example, releasing and providing rehabilitation programs for nonviolent minor drug offenders would free up space and money to provide literacy training, more advanced education and vocational training, and more and better counseling and therapy for the many inmates who will eventually be returned to society.

Religious institutions are, or should be, able to provide counseling and other services to interested inmates in all correctional facilities through volunteers or through professionals paid for by voluntary donations. But faith-based prisons are simply a bad idea.

Edd Doerr is president of Americans for Religious Liberty and immediate past president of the American Humanist Association.

COPYRIGHT 2004 American Humanist Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group