Monday, May 22, 2006

ACLU Seeks End to Jails' Deals With Ministries

Chaplain John Poffenberger figures he has a pretty good handle on what most criminals need. In charge of religious services at the Alexandria jail for two decades, he has ministered to shoplifters, drug dealers and murderers and has even had sessions with convicted Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.

"In jail, you don't have to convince inmates that they have to get help from something bigger than themselves," Poffenberger said. "It's that God sense that comes when they get into trouble. They need help, and they need it from someone more powerful than themselves."

For years, Poffenberger and his employer, the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, have had a contract with the jail to arrange services for everything from Christmas to Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah. But now a civil liberties group is questioning whether the payment deal Good News has with the jail in Alexandria and elsewhere is constitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia says the use of public funds to pay such organizations as Good News, an evangelical Christian group headquartered in Richmond, threatens the constitutional separation of church and state. The ACLU has called for three jails in the state to end similar contracts with another Christian jail ministry, the Southeastern Correctional Ministry, and last month it wrote to 25 jail administrators asking for information about their contracts with Southeastern, Good News and other organizations that provide religious services.

So far, one facility -- the Hampton jail -- has said it will suspend payments and has asked Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) to issue an opinion on whether the practice is legal. The ACLU has no immediate plans to take the matter to court but is concerned that the use of one group to provide those services could result in undue bias, said Kent Willis, the executive director.

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