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Religious Right groups file briefs to defend Colson prison program.

A slew of Religious Right organizations have filed legal briefs opposing Americans United's position in an Iowa case challenging taxpayer funding of a prison program anchored in evangelical Christianity.

A federal court in Iowa ruled in Americans United's favor June 2 in Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries. U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt ruled that the state violated church-state separation by funding a program that is immersed in a conservative form of Christianity.

The case challenges tax support of Charles Colson's InnerChange program, which AU argues is designed to further evangelical Christianity. AU does not oppose private funding of the program but says taxpayers should not be expected to pay for religious conversions.

In his ruling, Pratt ordered Prison Fellowship to repay $1.5 million in tax money it has received.

Leaders of Religious Right organizations were furious about the ruling and immediately attacked it, often distorting the judge's findings. They hope the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will overturn the decision.

Groups filing briefs in support of InnerChange include TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore's Foundation for Moral Law, the Iowa Family Policy Center and "Christian nation" activist David Barton's WallBuilders.

The WallBuilders' brief makes a rather unusual argument. Barton's attorneys assert that the Iowa program should be upheld in part because more than 200 years ago, the federal government on occasion used tax money to "Christianize" Native Americans in the hope it would "civilize" them.

Although this policy is widely regarded as misguided and even racist today, it receives a thumbs-up in the WallBuilders brief.

"During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the government initiated a widespread policy to 'civilize' the Indians," asserts the brief. "That policy included spreading the Gospel in order to convert the Indians to Christianity. Early Americans (including prominent Founding Fathers) desired to assimilate the Indians into society by proselytizing and converting the Indians to the Christian faith."

The federal government also filed a brief in the case but, surprisingly, addressed only a narrow question - arguing that Prison Fellowship should not have to repay the tax funds it got under the program.

"The U.S. does not defend the constitutionality of the Prison Fellowship program itself," Ira C. Lupu, a law professor at George Washington University, told the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. "I would call that a deafening silence from the U.S. on the substantive question of the validity of this sort of state-financed prison program."
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Title Annotation:PEOPLE & EVENTS
Publication:Church & State
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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