A Bad Stumble in the First Step Act: Taxpayer-Funded Religious Programming

January 7, 2019

The First Step Act, signed into law by President Trump just before Christmas, brings modest but meaningful reforms to the federal criminal justice system, basing many of its reforms on solid evidence, including the implementation of educational programs shown to reduce recidivism. But the new law also violates the Constitution with a provision that allows for the public funding of faith-based recidivism reduction services by including religious programs in its definition of “evidence-based” programs.

The Center for Inquiry joined with four other freethought organizations to urge the Judiciary Committee to strike this provision from the final bill before its passage. We pointed out the violation of religious freedom imposed on taxpayers who do not share the religious views of the faith-based service providers. “Federal funding of faith-based programs that promulgate a specific religious doctrine violates the principle of government neutrality toward religion by compelling taxpayers to fund religious instructions, beliefs, and practices,” the joint letter states.

Just as importantly, the provision violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by pressuring prisoners to take part in religious programming when secular alternatives are less available. “Incarcerated persons in these facilities and institutions will face an overwhelming incentive to accede to religious ideas that may be incompatible with their own beliefs to secure their prompt release from incarceration,” states the letter. “People would, quite literally, be rewarded for following a religious program funded by the government.” Unfortunately, the bill was passed with these provisions for faith-based programming intact.

You can read the full letter here, cosigned with American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the Secular Coalition for America.

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at centerforinquiry.org.