Prison ministry sued
Last Friday, the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council issued a glowing report about the Innerchange Freedom Initiative, a Christian program launched in 1997 by Prison Fellowship founder (and Christianity Today columnist) Charles Colson.

Only 8 percent of the 177 prisoners who completed the 16-month Innerchange program wound up back in prison within two years of their release, the study found. For other prisoners at the Carol Vance Unit near Houston, the recidivism rate was 20.5 percent. (Those who started but didn't complete the program, however, had a 36% recidivism rate.)

"We're real excited about those results," Don Keil, assistant director for religious programs at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told the Associated Press. "It shows there's something happening down there."

What's happening down there, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is pure evil. "It uses tax dollars for pervasively religious programs, allows discriminatory hiring, gives preferential treatment to one religion over others, funds coercive conversion efforts and basically ignores the whole notion of a separation between church and state," executive director Barry Lynn said.

Yesterday, Americans United sued the Innerchange program at the Newton Correctional Facility in Iowa. It hopes that the suit will derail the faith-based initiative of President Bush, who has praised Innerchange and brought it to Texas as governor.

"Contrary to the representation by the suits' plaintiffs, the InnerChange Freedom Initiative in operation in Iowa in no way violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution," says Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley in a press release. "In Iowa, InnerChange Freedom Initiative uses state monies solely for non-sectarian expenses while private funds are used for all religious programming. Furthermore, all inmates who take part in the Iowa InnerChange program—and indeed in all InnerChange programs—voluntarily choose to participate. While the program is open to inmates of all faiths or no faith, participants are fully apprised of the faith-centered nature of the program in advance of their participation."

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, whom The Washington Post rightly says "generally takes a supportive view of faith-based programs," told the paper that Innerchange will face a tough time making its case at trial. "The offer of various benefits that are unavailable to others is an indirect form of coercion that is clearly impermissible," he says.

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But expect Innerchange and prison officials to question those benefits. Jerry Wilger, InnerChange executive national director told The New York Times that many of the lawsuits' contentions are misleading or erroneous. Televisions are prohibited, he says, though the suit says they get big-screen TVs. Phone calls are indeed free—in emergencies. And yes, Innerchange inmates get keys to their cells—because the Department of Corrections put the program where cells only have old wooden doors.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty, who covered the Innerchange program in Iowa back in September 2001, also has a report on the lawsuit.

Isn't it ironic?
At Georgetown University yesterday, President Clinton defended himself against actor Richard Gere's remarks that he "did nothing" to fight AIDS while in office.

"I don't blame Richard Gere, because he's an actor. He doesn't know," he said. "I think that somebody told Richard Gere something because they were trying to score a few political points."

He contrasted his achievements on AIDS with those of the Bush administration: "We more than doubled domestic spending. We established the AIDS czar, the AIDS council. We started the vaccine initiative. So I am very proud of our record -- and we did it in a hostile environment," he said. "So in 2001, Sen. Jesse Helms got $500 million more for AIDS. It was wonderful. And the  [Bush] administration cut him back. And for two years they took a position that the Global AIDS Fund couldn't pay for generic medicine. And they put this guy on the AIDS council that said that AIDS was a gay plague."

Um. Let's see. Did he mean the guy who was nominated (not put on) the AIDS council who talked about how he used to believe AIDS was a gay plague until he and his family contracted the disease, and has now devoted himself to recruiting churches in the battle against HIV and AIDS? That guy? Who's trying to score a few political points now?

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  • A Catholic college will rise in Florida | The founder of Domino's Pizza has started Ave Maria University, the nation's first new Catholic university in four decades (The New York Times)

  • Mayor says relations improving | Harvard Finance Committee approves grants to the Orthodox Christian Fellowship and the Reformed Christian Fellowship after assurances that the groups do not deny membership to non-Christians (Harvard Crimson)

  • Durham to have orthodox scholar as next bishop | The choice of Dr Tom Wright, canon theologian at Westminster Abbey and former Dean of Lichfield, restores a tradition of academic excellence long associated with the Diocese (The Times, London)

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Money and business:

Sexual ethics:

  • Tories put faith in targeting religious vote | The Scottish Conservatives are preparing to stand on a new "family values" message during the Scottish Parliament elections in an attempt to tease out and harness the religious vote (The Scotsman)

  • Tories still split over Section 28 | Iain Duncan Smith is facing a damaging double rebellion by Tory MPs and peers over his attempt to resolve the party's heated debate on gay rights (The Independent, London)

  • Ministers oppose gay camp | Prayer vigil set March 5 in Pollock (The Town Talk, Alexandria, La.)

St. Valentine:

  • Italians Find St. Valentine Relic | The silver relic, in the shape of the saint's face, contains fragments of his skull and has been missing for over 30 years (Zoomata, Italy)

  • The origins of Valentine's Day | Anthony Aveni, an investigator of our holiday beliefs, has traced Valentine's Day from Lupercalia to the proclamation of St. Valentine's sainthood (UPI)

Sex, marriage, and relationships:

War with Iraq:

  • Anti-war conservatives bash hawks on Iraq | Opposition to war in Iraq comes from the Right, too (Pacific News Service)

  • Pope's envoy leads Iraqi Catholics in peace Mass | For Christians, who account for 3 percent of Iraq's population, Cardinal Etchegaray's mission of peace, which will include a visit to President Saddam Hussein to deliver a personal letter from the Pope, was a small sign of hope in the midst of a sea of desperation (The Times, London)

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Church sex abuse:

  • L.I. diocese tricked victims of sexual abuse, panel says | A grand jury accused Roman Catholic Church officials on Long Island of protecting scores of pedophile priests for decades (The New York Times)

  • Victims react to report on L.I. priest sexual abuse | A grand jury's assertion that the Diocese of Rockville Centre secretly battled to protect priests while pretending to extend a pastoral hand to sexual abuse victims goes beyond anything seen since the scandal in the Roman Catholic Church erupted a year ago, victims of abuse and their advocates said (The New York Times)

  • Rockville Centre Bishop rebuts grand jury report | Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre responded yesterday to a scathing grand jury report about his diocese's handling of clerical sex abuse on Long Island with an impassioned and sometimes personal defense (The New York Times)

  • States follow California's lead on priest abuse | Bills would extend time limits for prosecution, suits. Church sees threat to religious freedom (Los Angeles Times)

  • Archbishop was hijacked, claims sacked choirmaster | Sydney's Catholic Archbishop George Pell yesterday confirmed he had approved the sacking of St Mary's Cathedral's choirmaster David Russell, after Mr. Russell broke his silence on the matter with a plea for his reinstatement (The Sydney Morning Herald)

Church life:

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  • The most un-Anglican archbishop | The core beliefs of Peter Jensen's faction are inconsistent with Anglicanism (Caroline Miley, Sydney Morning Herald)

  • 'E-tithing' catching on in some denominations | In an era when an estimated 60 percent of Americans get their paychecks through direct deposit and half of U.S. households pay at least one bill electronically, some religious leaders see "e-tithing" as a logical step (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)

Television and radio:

  • Chef Jamie Oliver roasted over outburst | Independent Television Commission rules that outburst "is deeply offensive to Christians and requires a high degree of justification, which it did not feel was present on this occasion" (BBC)

  • NPR's belated apology | It took awhile to get around to it, but National Public Radio has belatedly apologized for airing a slanderous "news" story last year that suggested the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) may have been involved in sending anthrax-tainted letters to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy (Editorial, The Washington Times)

  • Ad irks Christian viewer | "I do not think Christians realize the effect this type of advertisement (where telekinetic or magical powers are involved) has on their children," says mother (News24, South Africa)

Pop culture:

  • Bringing Harry Potter to church | After initial misgivings, a growing number of churches view the hugely successful Harry Potter books and movies not as a threat but a chance to teach children about Christianity (The Colorado Springs Gazette)

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