Theocracy Watch VI: Thoughts in Captivity

There have been many pieces of good news for atheists in November, and I’m happy to be able to report another one. As reported in the November issue of Freethought Today, the Freedom from Religion Foundation has done it again, winning a major victory against the creeping theocracy that is infiltrating our government due to the unconstitutional actions of the Bush administration.

Specifically, an FFRF legal challenge has persuaded the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to cancel its plans for five government-sponsored “single-faith” programs to be run in federal prisons. In March of this year, as reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, the government had planned to set aside cellblocks in as many as six federal prisons that would be reserved exclusively for prisoners who had agreed to undergo pre-release counseling by approved religious ministries.

In other words, in this program religious groups would be able to bid for government support, and the winners would receive taxpayer money to support proselytization toward a captive audience. In such a program, it would be highly likely that an inmate’s willingness to participate and to give assent to the religious group’s doctrines would affect the conditions of their release. There would be no guarantee that a given prison would have this program available to all faiths who wished to participate, and no guarantee that there would be a secular alternative. Indeed, it seems likely that there would not be one: according to people like David Kuo, this and other “faith-based initiatives” were created by the Bush administration as a way to preferentially funnel government money to conservative religious groups in exchange for votes, and members of review panels disbursing this money stated explicitly on some occasions that they intended to disregard applications from non-Christian groups.

No matter how it is viewed, it is clear that this program would be an egregious entanglement of church and state. The fact that it has been dropped is a resounding victory for friends of the First Amendment, and we should all be grateful to FFRF for their work.

A sample graphic from the Life Principles curriculum used in a New Mexico women’s prison. From Freethought Today, Nov. 2006.

The battle over religious establishment in prisons is not over, though. There are still “multi-faith” federal prison programs that are being challenged in court by the FFRF, as well as some truly glaring violations at the state level. One of the latter is the “Life Principles” program in a New Mexico women’s prison that is also the subject of an FFRF lawsuit. Solicited by the state, this program requires participants to participate in activities including extensive Bible memorization, community prayer, weekly evening services in addition to general prison chapel services, discussions of how the inmate’s “new purpose” in life is to “make disciples” and how they intend to achieve this, and mandatory participation in a graduation ceremony that includes hymn-singing and prayer. Inmates are coerced into attending this religious indoctrination by offers of a reduced sentence and reassignment to a different cellblock that is less crowded and has more amenities than are offered to the general prison population.

Worst of all, this program teaches not just a generically Christian viewpoint but an extreme fundamentalist and literalist viewpoint. Inmates are expected to attend courses where they answer questions such as, “Are rulers to execute God’s wrath?” (the correct answer is “yes”), “Can we resist God-given authority and still have a good conscience?” (no), and “Must we continue to respect an evil ruler as a minister of God?” (yes). This program, which is run in a women’s prison, also teaches the outdated and offensive view that women are inferior to men and should be obedient.

As with public schools, we must be especially vigilant in defending church-state separation in areas where a person’s participation is involuntary or coerced. Few Christian evangelist groups have such scruples, and to judge by their comments, many of them view government-sponsored prison-indoctrination programs as an excellent opportunity to force their views and beliefs on potential converts who have little ability to resist. But the purpose of prison is not as a factory for churning out more believers; it is to punish the guilty and teach them how to fit back into society. Thankfully, we have a Constitution that mandates a secular government, and its clear principles have turned back many unconstitutional attempts at religious establishment before. A wise judicial system will uphold that history and continue to ensure that, whatever the faiths of its citizens, America remains an officially religiously neutral nation.

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