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A federal appeals panel has struck down Iowa’s state funding of an evangelical Christian prison program as a violation of constitutional mandates of church and state separation. It is one of a just a handful of appellate rulings since the U.S. Supreme Court curtailed taxpayer standing to challenge presidentially-approved, faith-based funding earlier this year, in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, 433 U.S. 989. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision Dec. 3 is a boost for taxpayers because the unanimous panel held Americans United for Separation of Church and State had standing to sue under a legal exception protecting taxpayer rights to question legislatively mandated faith-based funding. Making the decision all the more intriguing, it was joined by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, sitting as a visiting judge, in Americans United v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, Inc., 06-2741. In addition, the panel held that the evangelical group performed as a state actor with control over inmates. Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries operated InnerChange Freedom Initiative. Colson, a former aide to President Richard Nixon, went to prison for obstruction of justice in the 1970s and was accused of political dirty tricks during the Watergate era. He became an evangelical while in prison. Iowa has funded the program since 2000 roughly $200,000 per year at one prison. The appeals court held that InnerChange only had to return funds paid since 2006, rather than back to 2000 as the lower court originally ordered. The taxpayer challenge asserted that inmates who volunteered for the Bible study received perks that included better housing and preferential access to classes needed for parole.

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