The New York Times and the First Amendment, again

Local prisonThe New York Times' Diana Henriques filed the latest installment for her series examining, as she says, how religious organizations benefit from an increasingly accommodating government. You may recall we took a look at the first four parts in October. The first story, weighing in at almost 5,000 words, focused on regulatory exemptions for religious organizations that run social services. The second focused on rights of employees at religious organizations. The third installment was about revenue bond financing for religious groups. Part four was about the tax-exemption bounty that awaits members of the clergy.

The latest story is about an evangelical Christian program run at a prison in Iowa. It's a very interesting and substantial story. She begins with a few evocative paragraphs:

The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs, with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands and real-world food, like pizza or sandwiches from Subway. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting rooms.

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress. The program -- which grew from a project started in 1997 at a Texas prison with the support of George W. Bush, who was governor at the time -- says on its Web site that it seeks "to 'cure' prisoners by identifying sin as the root of their problems" and showing inmates "how God can heal them permanently, if they turn from their sinful past."

The story mentions one inmate -- a Roman Catholic -- who left the program because he felt it was hostile to his faith. Unfortunately, Henriques is so focused on her government accommodation angle that this is the only prisoner story mentioned.

The program was found unconstitutional and the group is required to repay more than $1.5 million in government funds, although the ruling has been appealed. Let me just say I completely agree with Henriques that government funding of religious programs is unconstitutional. But there's the rub. Henriques' stories are a bit heavy on the advocacy. We discussed some of the problems with that approach in the previous set of stories. It's not so much of a problem in this story, but I think it affects how well she fleshes out the views of people who support taxpayer-funded religious activity:

Jay Hein, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the Iowa decision was unfair to the ministry and reflects an "overreaching" at odds with legal developments that increasingly "show favor to religion in the public square."

And while he acknowledged the need for vigilance, he said he did not think the constitutional risks outweighed the benefits of inviting "faith-infused" ministries, like the one in Iowa, to provide government-financed services to "people of faith who seek to be served in this 'full-person' concept."

Why not include the story of one of the inmates who felt he benefited from the program? As much as I detest the idea that my hard-earned money goes to inculcate religious views with which I disagree vehemently, I'm sure there are stories out there. And it would provide some much-needed balance.

But somehow I'm being too critical of a fantastic and well-researched story. In many ways, I think this one was the best of the series. She toned down some of the broad, unsubstantiated statements in earlier stories and explained the constitutional problems in a concise but thorough manner:

"The state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation, i.e., InnerChange employees, authority to control the spiritual, emotional and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates," Judge Pratt wrote. "There are no adequate safeguards present, nor could there be, to ensure that state funds are not being directly spent to indoctrinate Iowa inmates."

And now I'm curious what other stories we'll see in this series.

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