The faith-based community was given a bit of good news yesterday when the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals announced its decision in a landmark case challenging the constitutionality of an effective faith-based in-prison rehabilitation program in Iowa known as the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI).
The original lawsuit, brought against IFI, Prison Fellowship and the State of Iowa by the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, claimed that -- surprise -- the program violated the separation of church and state. In response, Federal District Court Judge Robert Pratt declared the program unconstitutional in 2006 and demanded that it be shut down. In addition, Judge Pratt ordered a monetary recoupment of $1.5 million be returned to the state of Iowa by IFI for contracted services from 2000-2006. This shocking and unprecedented ruling had huge implications for the faith-based community, especially at a time when the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives was likewise being challenged.
But, thankfully, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, joined by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day Oâ€™Connor, not only overturned the order that IFI be shut down, but affirmed that faith-based organizations are not barred from partnering with the government. Although the ruling declared that states cannot fund religious prison programs with tax-payer money, faith-based groups providing privately funded services are free to continue in their work. This is great news! And just as vital was the Eighth Circuitâ€™s reversal of the District Courtâ€™s unprecedented recoupment order. This means that faith-based groups everywhere can partner in good faith with the government without fearing the potentially crippling effects that a recoupment order could bring.