VARNER UNIT: Seminary training planned there draws challenge.

VARNER UNIT: Seminary training planned there draws challenge.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit that works against the entanglement of government with religion, has written the Arkansas Correction Department to question a new initiative to allow Varner inmates to earn a college degree in Christian studies to prepare to become ministers.

The Arkansas Baptist State Convention and the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary are sponsoring the program, set to begin in the fall.

The letter notes that case law says prisons can’t compel or encourage participation in religious exercises. While the seminary program is not a church service and voluntary, the letter says it is “overtly religious” and a “substantial benefit” to a prisoner. To get a better education, an inmate must “be subjected to religious instruction” in one branch of Christian faith.

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The plain facts are these: this is a Baptist course of study offered by a Baptist theological seminary, working in concert with a Baptist organization whose primary purpose is to proselytize. Simply put this is not separation of church and state.

The letter said there’s a “glut” of secular programs available to enhance inmate education that the prison could use.

But by all outward appearances, Varner Unit’s seminary program is not about transforming inmates’ lives through education — it is about transforming prisoners into preachers. The Constitution simply does not allow the state to turn a cellblock into a seminary.

The letter, to Department compliance director Mark Colbert from Colin McNamara, a legal fellow at the Foundation, asks the department not to move ahead with a plan to begin the program in the fall.

I received this e-mail response from spokesman Solomon Graves:

Department management received the referenced letter late this afternoon. Mr. Colbert is the Administrator of our Board’s Compliance Division. We remain excited about the service Mid-America will be providing, at no cost to the state, for inmates at the Varner Unit. The Department currently has five (5) colleges working within our facilities. Any proposal from a college or university is evaluated on its merits; to include the stability of institution and the quality of academic program(s). Mid-America is a proven institution and the inmate seminary model has been proven to be successful in multiple states, Louisiana and Texas among the number.