FAITH-BASED INITIATIVES….You ever wonder what those “faith-based initiatives” that George Bush keeps praising are like? You ever wonder if, just maybe, there’s a risk that they could end up mixing government money with religious proselytizing?

Well, wonder no more. One of the most popular of these faith-based programs is Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries, which runs InnerChange, a program designed to “create and maintain a prison environment that fosters respect for God’s law.” In fact, according to the InnerChange website it’s one of George Bush’s personal favorites:

At the request of the State of Texas, we launched the first-ever, 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week Christian prison program at the Carol Vance Unit near Houston, TX.

Now, Colson seems to do genuinely good work, but today Brian Montopoli points to a Washington Post story reporting that InnerChange is the subject of a pair of lawsuits in Iowa:

According to the suits, about 200 Iowa prisoners pray and memorize Bible verses under the guidance of Christian staff in prison rooms lined with displays of scripture passages. In return, they live in an “honor” unit where they are housed two to a cell, permitted to leave their cells at night and granted many other privileges [including keys to their cell doors, private bathrooms, free phone calls — even access to big-screen TVs].

Of course, that’s just what the suit says. Maybe they’re exaggerating?

Nope. Eugene Volokh got this confirmation from Chip Lupu, a “leading religion-and-the-law scholar at George Washington University who’s probably best described as mildly-liberal-to-moderate”:

Barbara Bradley Hagerty of NPR….said that she had been to the prison to do a story on this program last year. She admired its results, but she said the facts as she observed them are very close to what is alleged in the complaint….

So, the bottom line is this: the Iowa program gives prisoners special privileges as long as they agree to become Christians.

And that’s not a violation of the First Amendment? That’s not using coerceive government power to promote one religion over another?

And if it isn’t, what is?