May 10, 2007

Subsidized Religion in MA

I want to throw this out for criticism.

In our Bristol County jails, we have a religious group being subsidized by the Sheriff. They operate a rehab program which blends in religion, requiring worship as part of their rehabilitation. You enter the program, are isolated, and are indoctrinated into Pentecostal Christianity.

A defiant Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson says it’s “absurd” to complain that an overtly Christian after-prison rehabilitation program using a county-owned building on Cherry Street is violating the separation of church and state.

My questions:

  • Should the group be allowed to use government buildings without paying rent?
  • Does this violate the establishment clause?
  • Does the success rate of the program matter if it is unconstitutional?

And I’d like to hear any of your other impressions about the story.

Also note, that there is a question about the 86% success rate they quote. According to this piece:

Teen Challenge measures participants’ drug use after graduation from the program by asking them to volunteer the information. Most secular programs determine success by testing former participants’ urine for drug traces. Brooklyn Teen Challenge Women’s Program director Dotty Bolger pointed to one State University of Southwest Missouri study that used urine tests to determine that 67 percent of Teen Challenge graduates were clean after a year, but the study was conducted 24 years ago.

Teen Challenge is more interested in participants’ relationship with Jesus Christ than their relationship with drugs. Those who still worship Christ as their savior one year after they leave the program are placed on the success side of the ledger.

“If someone uses drugs during that year, it’s not an automatic failure,” said Joceline Tulier, a counselor at the program.

So, if you remain a Christian, that’s a success, even if you take drugs. In fact, if you say you’re clean, you’re a success. That’s rigor? If their criteria for success is so lax, it sounds more like a scam.

What do you think?

Posted by James at May 10, 2007 8:55 AM
Create Social Bookmark Links

I think we should not withhold money from a program that does good work and gets good results just because it's associated with a religious organization (but see below). But once the program crosses the line and becomes an active arm of the religious organization, state support of it must stop — yes, I think that violates the first amendment.

Now, it's very difficult to state clearly, in general, when a program is merely associated with a religious organization but is otherwise acceptable... and when it's gone too far. In the case you point out, it's not difficult at all, and that one should be cut off completely. But in many cases it's a harder call.

The thing is, it's all over the place, and has been for some time, long before King George's "Faith-Based Initiative". Some states, for example (including, I think, New York) require attendance at AA meetings for anyone convicted of DUI/DWI. When last I looked, AA's "steps" included accepting God's help.[1] To my mind, that crosses the line: the state requires a convicted criminal to enroll in a program that has the acceptance of God as part of it.

I just re-checked. See here, and note that step 2 refers to "a Power greater than ourselves", step 12 refers to "having had a spiritual awakening", and steps 3, 5, 6, 7, and 11 clearly and explicitly involve God.

Posted by: Barry Leiba at May 10, 2007 10:02 AM

Ask the Sheriff if he would feel the same about a Muslim organization providing the same rehabilitation. Sounds to me like he's subsidizing his favorite bunch.

Posted by: Chuck S. at May 10, 2007 10:14 AM

Separation of church and state. 'Nuff said.

Posted by: leslie at May 10, 2007 10:20 AM

Oh, and another thought: it's not just a question of the group's using a government building. The article talks about its being "voluntary", and "lack of coercion", but I don't buy it. I'll bet there's actually a great deal of coercion involved. I'll bet if we checked closely, we'd find that early release or parole is often contingent upon agreement to join the program, and that probation terms are more onerous for those who don't join. Not that the program sounds like a cake-walk either, but....

Posted by: Barry Leiba at May 10, 2007 10:20 AM

I called in to the morning talk show here and made the following points:

  1. One needs to really look into those statistics before we accept that the program is 86% successful.
  2. "Not mandatory" is not quite the same as "voluntary." Certainly not as cut and dried as it seems. You're turning people away based on whether they want religion with their rehab or not. If the only option offered by the county is the religious option, then it's like having a town-sponsored soccer league where the only way you can get in is to worship.
  3. As Chuck pointed out, people would probably view this differently if they were forcing people to follow conservative Islam to participate in the program.

It was Mike Moran's show, and we closed out the call agreeing about the dangers (both to government and to religious freedom) of mixing the state and religion.

Barry - you make an excellent point that "voluntary" ought to be scrutinized as well.

If I were religious, I would find this whole thing disturbing. Doesn't it reinforce the implication that religion is the opiate of the people?" Replace one drug with another?

Posted by: James at May 10, 2007 12:24 PM

Barry mentions what is my question: Would attendance in this program increase a prisoner's chances of parole and/or a reduction in his sentence?

Question 2: Is this the only drug rehab program the prison offers? If so, this places the prisoner in an untenable position. He can join the rehab program voluntarily, but if that's the only program there is, this is a false choice.

Posted by: Patti M. at May 10, 2007 12:35 PM

Something I didn't specify in my blog post: the subsidy we're talking about is that the county provides them free rent for their facility.

If these people want to teach teens to trade in their drugs for speaking in tongues, I have no constitutional problem with that as long as it's not subsidized by the government.

Posted by: James at May 10, 2007 12:38 PM

Criticisms of Teen Challenge:

Take it with a grain of salt, I think -- I'd like to see some reputable investigation of this organization. Are their numbers really from only one internal (skewed) assessment 20 years ago?

Posted by: James at May 10, 2007 12:45 PM

Read this if you have other questions regarding Teen Challenge, including their success rates which were done well over 30 years ago!!! "Investigating Teen Challenge"

Posted by: karly at May 12, 2007 2:04 AM

Thanks for posting that, Karly. Nice to know this stuff is getting some exposure.

Posted by: Julie at May 12, 2007 12:53 PM

You're welcome!

Posted by: Karly at May 12, 2007 5:09 PM

Copyright © 1999-2007 James P. Burke. All Rights Reserved