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The bipartisan criminal justice bill that just passed through the Senate yesterday — and one of the only legislative issues both parties seem to support in large numbers — has a church/state separation problem.

The First Step Act would make a lot of necessary changes to our justice system. It would expand job training for federal prisoners, expand early-release programs, reduce sentences for non-violent offenders, etc. Good stuff. Doesn’t go far enough, but still. Not bad.

Except for the part that’s bad. One of the provisions in S. 3649 concerning an “evidence-based recidivism reduction program” — which is a program to prevent offenders from ending up back in jail — allows for “faith-based classes or services.”

In other words, one way to convince the government to set you free because you’ve shown you won’t commit another crime would be by going through a religious program.

Not just a religious program, but one funded by the government.

A coalition of atheist groups, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, Center for Inquiry, and the Secular Coalition for America have sent a letter to Sen. Chuck Grassley and Sen. Dick Durbin calling on them to nix that provision before a final bill is signed.

Federal funding of faith-based programs that promulgate a specific religious doctrine violates the principle of government neutrality toward religion by compelling taxpayers to fund religious instructions, beliefs, and practices. Regardless of whether individual taxpayers agreed with the religious instruction that would be federally funded, requiring them to fund that instruction would deprive them of the freedom to practice religion, or not, in accordance with their deeply held beliefs.

Furthermore, the public provision of faith-based programs violates the Establishment Clause. Especially in facilities or institutions where incarcerated persons lack sufficient access to religiously neutral programs and where the government controls which religious and nonreligious philosophical groups can obtain access, faith-based programming will serve to pressure individuals to abide or recite particular religious ideas that may not reflect, or may even violate, their deeply and sincerely held beliefs.

People would, quite literally, be rewarded for following a religious program funded by the government; a refusal to follow these religious programs could result in removal from the program and denial of the accompanying benefits.

To fix the problem, the groups are just asking for the removal of the line concerning “faith-based classes or services” from a longer list of types of recidivism reduction programs. The atheists are not objecting to religious groups offering an evidence-based secular service, only the kind of indoctrination this provision would allow.

Seriously, it’s not asking much. They just want the following part, which I’ve put in a red box, removed from the final bill.

That’s it. That’s what the atheist groups want removed.

Will it happen? I doubt it. The last thing Republicans want right now is for the Christian Right to find reason to oppose this bill, and removing a provision that benefits religious groups would do the trick, even if it’s a perfectly sensible move. (As we’ve long known, their base isn’t exactly swayed by sensible ideas.)

There is an incentive to make the change, though. If the bill passes, there’s a chance a faith-based prison program could be challenged in court. Politicians would be wise to remove the controversial line and spare us all the hassle of a legal battle down the road.

(Image via Shutterstock)

Hemant Mehta is the founder of, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.