Prison Ministries Handcuffed

In a ruling that further muddies the water for faith-based programs that receive federal funds, a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a mixed opinion for Iowa's Prison Fellowship Ministry (PFM).

At stake in the suit, brought by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AUSCS), was the $1.5 million that PFM received from the state until the program became privately funded in 2006.

Siding with AUSCS in its argument that PFM was violating the Establishment Clause, the lower court demanded that PFM repay the money and banned the program from partnering with the state.

However, the appeals panel reversed the recoupment order and reprimanded the lower court for barring faith-based programs from "ever contracting with the [Department of Corrections]."

The good news is that the 8th Circuit panel upheld Prison Fellowship's right to operate in Iowa. On the downside, the panel, which included former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, deemed it "unconstitutional" for the state to fund an evangelical prison ministry--even if, as in PFM's case, the money does not finance the program's religious component.

In one of the more troubling aspects of the opinion, the 8th Circuit seemed to fault PFM for the lack of secular rehabilitation programs in the state. Although the justices said that religious groups weren't excluded from competing for federal funds, they implied that the ministries must be competing with someone for the grants to pass constitutional muster. The court decried the lack of options for Iowa prisoners; but whether or not Prison Fellowship had secular competition for state money is an issue beyond the ministry's control.

As Mark Earley, President and CEO of PFM, argued, his group shouldn't be penalized for being the first ones at the table. It's unclear where the case will go from here and, more importantly, what effect this ruling will have on other faith-based initiatives.