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Sandra Day O'Connor hears faith-based appeal in St. Louis

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

By Adam Allington, KWMU

St. Louis, MO – A faith-based prison ministry is appealing a court ruling that would ban their program from receiving state funding.

An Iowa district court ruled against Prison Fellowship Ministries in 2006, stating that they were in violation of constitutional laws governing separation of church and state.

The eighth circuit court of appeals heard oral arguments in St. Louis on Tuesday. Among the judges presiding, was retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day-O'Connor.

Anthony Picarello was lead counsel for the defense. Picarello claims that the program focuses on tackling the secular goal of reducing inmate recidivism. He says the part that deals with religion is not funded with public money.

"There's a religious component but the government isn't paying for any of it because the funds have been segregated," says Picarello, "and even if the government is paying for some of it, it is being directed there only as a result of prisoner's private choice."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a suit last year claiming that the program amounts to state-sponsored religious indoctrination.

Barry Lynn is an ordained minister and CEO of Americans United.

"Although this is a program that claims to be reducing recidivism, it's primary effort is clearly to convert inmates to Evangelical Christianity and that is not something that can be done with taxpayer dollars."

An Iowa district court ruled in favor of Americans United last year ordering Prison Ministries to reimburse the state for 1.5 million dollars.

Prison Ministries claim the program has been a stunning success at a time when few groups are addressing the growing problem of inmate recidivism.