WASHINGTON - August 11 - A federal judge in Pennsylvania has allowed a lawsuit against government funding of a faith-based prison ministry to proceed.
On Aug. 10, U.S. District Judge James M. Munley dismissed an attempt by Bradford County officials to scuttle a lawsuit brought last year challenging local, state and federal funding of an evangelical prison ministry.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State along with the law firm of Arnold & Porter and the ACLU of Pennsylvania are representing members of the Bradford County Alliance for Democracy (BCAD) in the lawsuit.
“It is clearly unconstitutional for the government to expend tax dollars for a prison ministry program that proselytizes inmates and coerces them to take part in religious activities,” said Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser. “We are pleased that the federal judge has allowed our case to go forward.”
The prison program operated by a group called The Firm Foundation has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds to offer vocational training for inmates of the Bradford County Correctional Facility. The program was implemented in 2003 and is the only vocational training available to the inmates. The BCAD uncovered immense financial mismanagement of the program and church-state problems, but county officials refused to heed their concerns.
In Moeller v. Bradford County, the plaintiffs argue that The Firm Foundation’s vocational program is largely an evangelical ministry that should not be supported by public funds. The plaintiffs’ suit argues that large amounts of the program include religious discussion, lectures and prayers and that its staff is made up entirely of persons adhering to the Foundation’s religious beliefs.
Bradford County officials had urged the federal court to dismiss the lawsuit for technical and substantive reasons.
In yesterday’s action, Judge Munley concluded that plaintiffs’ claims were substantial and that litigation should proceed.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.