My home state of Connecticut is one of the most secular and progressive in the country, sometimes running far ahead of the rest of the US, as for example when — just this October — it became only the second state to legalize gay marriage. But Connecticut began as a primarily-Puritan colony (actually as three, one based in Hartford and the other two being New Haven and Saybrook). As such Connecticut has a history of religious prudery like none other, and a tendency remains here to revere religion in spite of all else. There are a lot of Catholics here, for example; the archdiocese of Hartford and dioceses of Bridgeport and Norwich have become militant, activist, and more parochial over the last few years, a trend of questionable legality I blogged about earlier.

The Hartford Courant reports, today, on one religious effort which has Hartford’s government sanction, and is an overtly proselytizing operation:

The men who live at Taste-N-See Outreach Ministry in Bridgeport have been praising God in song and scripture for a good hour when Pastor James Jennings urges them to their feet shortly after 7:30 a.m. …

Taste-N-See, which is named from Psalms 34:8, “Taste and see that the Lord is good, Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him” — is one of about 20 faith-based agencies receiving federal funds through the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Connecticut has embraced faith-based services, one of the initiatives to come out of the Bush administration after it created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001. Eleven federal agencies took up the charge, making federal money and support more accessible to faith-based and community organizations.

Way to go Connecticut, throw money at churches and allow them to use people in prison — whose options are limited and to whom access is restricted by necessity — to indulge their missionary impulses. Of course, it’s not as though no one knows this is wrong:

“A lot of these programs contain a significant amount of evangelizing or proselytizing, and from our position that type of outreach should never be funded with taxpayer dollars,” says Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“There should be no taxpayer-funded evangelizing, period.&dquo;

But Jennings, a former drug addict himself who found healing in his faith, sees a distinction between using taxpayer money to evangelize and using it to show people, through mercy and kindness, a better path.

While I am sure that a lot of addicts like the program, and one could claim it works so let’s keep doing it even if it’s unconstitutional, as I said the fact remains that the options of prisoners are limited at any given moment and programs like this may be the only reasonable choices available to them. Hence, they end up being forced into religion, when they should not be. Oh, but not to worry — Connecticut officials are equipped with a rationale for why this is acceptable:

Thomas Kirk, commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, says he understands why people get skittish about this, but insists there is a fundamental misunderstanding among the public about what faith-based programs do.

“We don’t pay for prayer,” Kirk says flatly.

That means that while Taste-N-See Outreach Ministry might offer prayer as part of its program — and an unabashedly Christian perspective as well — the state isn’t paying for that particular element of the program.

Instead, the government funds the housing and case management services offered by the program.

Sorry to break it to Commissioner Kirk, but giving money to a religious operation that proselytizes, does in fact — and in all cases — fund the proselytizing as much as it does anything else. Merely giving an overtly-religious program exclusive access to prisoners, which other programs do not get, is wrong. Prisoners in the program who are trying to prove themselves, are going to go along with all of that program — including prayers — because not doing so will reflect badly on themselves … not to mention it might earn the derision of their praying peers (and as one might imagine, prisoners have ways of coercing each other into doing things they might not otherwise do). The idea that participants in Taste-N-See are truly “free” to opt out of praying, is simply not true.

The Courant story goes on to mention that the efficacy of these programs is not known with certainty (even if the faith-based providers themselves claim they are). Kirk and other officials behind this admit the statistics aren’t in yet … but they quite frankly don’t care. They’re going with them anyway.

The religiosity of these programs aside, I wonder how smart it is for officials to be spending public money on programs they don’t know will work! Seriously … why throw money at unproven things? Everyone in Connecticut, religious or not, should be concerned about this cavalier and casual attitude toward public expenditures by Commissioner Kirk and our other elected and appointed officials.

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