- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2003

The Bush administration's faith-based charity initiative has reached another hurdle as its critics sue a religious program in Iowa prisons and a new welfare rule on religion receives its final public comments today.
In federal court last week, Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued Iowa's InnerChange Freedom Initiative and its sponsor, Prison Fellowship, for mingling government funds and sectarian religion.
The two lawsuits said the activity used Iowa monies to teach Christianity, discriminated by hiring only workers of a particular religious view, and gave privileges to prisoners who joined.
As the lawsuit is pending, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued proposed guidelines that protects the rights of religious groups using welfare grants to choose whom they hire. A public comment period on the regulatory action ends today.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has also issued new regulations allowing grants for buildings owned by religious groups. The comment period on the HUD regulations ends March 7.
Both actions were taken under the charitable-choice clause of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.
Americans United, one of the most aggressive opponents of the charitable-choice provision, hopes to reverse the measure by a victory in the courts.
But Mark L. Earley, former attorney general of Virginia and president of Prison Fellowship, said he hopes "these suits will be dismissed quickly."
He called InnerChange one of the "most successful programs for reducing prisoner recidivism," or repeat offenses, and said it abides by the charitable-choice law.
The program, he said, is voluntary and inmate participants "are fully apprised of the faith-centered nature" of the activity, which involves religious study, connecting with a local church and making amends with crime victims.
"In Iowa, InnerChange Freedom Initiative uses state monies solely for nonsectarian expenses, while private funds are used for all religious programming," Mr. Earley said.
Though legislation to expand some aspects of the charitable-choice law has been stalled in Congress, by executive order President Bush has requested regulatory changes in five Cabinet agencies.
The two announced by HHS and HUD are considered the most wide ranging so far, researchers said.
"These proposals would significantly change the environment in which faith-based groups receive government support," said Richard Nathan, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government.
"It's critical for all sides on this issue to review these proposals and make sure their voices are heard while there's an opportunity to do so," Mr. Nathan said.
The Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, a project sponsored by the institute, has done legal analysis of the federal and state policy and is somewhat skeptical of the mixing of religion and government funding.
The closest thing to a legal test of the charitable-choice policy so far was the Supreme Court ruling last year that Ohio welfare vouchers could be spent at a Christian drug-treatment center called Faith Works because it was a voluntary program.
If the Iowa suit goes forward, the two key issues are expected to be whether inmates "volunteer" and whether funds for religious study are kept separate from money used for buildings, transportation or prison supervision.
Meanwhile, Mr. Earley said, the InnerChange program in Texas prisons is being studied for its effectiveness, in particular by the University of Pennsylvania.
In Texas, he said, the Criminal Justice Policy Council released a report this month that just 8 percent of inmates who participated returned to prison within two years, compared with 22 percent of comparable nonparticipating prisoners.

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