Recovery or Religion? The Problem with Faith-Based Alternatives to Incarceration

By Elizabeth Platt, Associate Director, Public Rights/Private Conscience Project

When the judge and prosecutor offered Nicklaus Ellison an opportunity to avoid a year in jail by enrolling in Teen Challenge, a “Christ-centered” substance abuse program, it seemed like the obvious choice. What Nicklaus—an openly gay 20-year-old from Knoxville, Tennessee— and his family didn’t know was that in addition to treating his addiction, Teen Challenge would also attempt to make him straight.

Nicklaus died from a drug overdose in a stranger’s apartment shortly after running away from a Teen Challenge facility in Jacksonville, Florida in 2011. Among his belongings, his mother found a letter that Nicklaus had written to his sister but never sent. She was troubled when she read her son claim in the letter, “they de-gayed me after all. Once I realized that God doesn’t make homosexuals I realized something; there’s no such thing.” A recent New York Times article relayed the enormous difficulties that Nicklaus’s family has faced in seeking justice for—or even information about—his death.

Nicklaus is by no means the only person who has faced a choice between jail or participation in a Christian program. Several federal and district courts across the country—including the Supreme Court of Tennessee— have held that widespread practices of requiring participation in a religious treatment program as an alternative to prison, or as a condition for maintaining certain privileges within prison, violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Yet despite these decisions, the practice evidently continues.

Not only are judges, prosecutors, and prison systems sending people to religious programs, but taxpayers are paying for them. During his presidency, George W. Bush spoke out in support of Teen Challenge as a part of his faith-based initiative program. While the Department of Justice (DOJ) recently amended agency rules, aiming to ensure that “Federal financial assistance is not used to coerce or pressure beneficiaries along religious lines,” the agency also acknowledged that “Faith-based organizations that receive federal funding are permitted to use religious terms in their organizational names; select board members on a religious basis; include religious references in mission statements and other organizational documents; and post religious art, messages, scriptures, and symbols in buildings where they deliver federally funded services and benefits.” And as recently as November 2015, DOJ awarded a grant of over $38,000 to Teen Challenge in Minnesota.

Forcing anyone to participate in a religious program is deeply problematic and clearly unconstitutional, but the situation is even more dire for people like Nicklaus. LGBT people already face high rates of discrimination in the criminal justice system, and coercing them into anti-gay programs like Teen Challenge can have devastating consequences.

No one should be forced to choose between Church and jail, and LGBT people with criminal convictions should not have to risk their dignity, health, and lives by being sentenced to programs that attempt to “convert” them. The fact that judges still enforce such requirements should trouble anyone who believes that our criminal justice system should be in the business of encouraging recovery, not salvation.