In a decision that may have implications for other faith-based recipients of government funding, Iowa's Department of Corrections closed a Prison Fellowship program at the Newton Correctional Facility. The move came after a federal appeals court ruled last December that the program's funding had overstepped church-state boundaries.
According to department spokesman Fred Scaletta, InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) was notified in late February that it would be shuttered once fewer than 60 inmates were enrolled in the program. The threshold was crossed on March 14 after 27 inmates graduated from the program, Scaletta said.
Howard Friedman, a Toledo University law professor, said the Newton program faced problems because government funding cannot be used for religious instruction.
"The aid [to IFI] amounted to direct aid to a religious program," Friedman said.
"The arrangement did not meet the criteria for an indirect aid program, where funds went to participants who then had a free choice of where to spend them."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), which initiated the lawsuit against IFI, said housing program participants in a separate wing of the Newton prison amounted to "special privileges."
Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley said the Iowa decision wouldn't affect the ministry's remaining 8 IFI programs. He also said that the court's ruling would ultimately benefit faith-based service providers, because it clarified how state funding can be used.
However, Earley admitted that it was "just easier" to seek private funding for Iowa's IFI than to meet government regulations. All of IFI's programs have been privately funded since July 2007.
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