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Religious coercion in Michigan case shows government should be wary of faith-based programs

by Wendy Wagenheim; Detroit News, Editorials & Opinions; Friday, August 27, 2004. Originally posted 9/4/2004: []. Also available at: []

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In a nation that cherishes religious freedom, how is it that a judge permitted blatant religious coercion, endorsing one religion over another and discouraging one religion? That’s what happened when Joe Hanas, a young man from Genesee County, was arrested for a nonviolent drug offense.

As part of a progressive court program, Hanas had a chance to receive drug rehabilitation rather than go to jail. There was, unfortunately, one major problem — Joe Hanas is a practicing Catholic, and the program was operated by Pentecostals. Though the judge’s intent may not have been for Hanas to convert to the Pentecostal faith, his test for Hanas’ successful completion of the “drug court” program hinged on just that.

The coercion was extreme, and it was an elected judge who allowed it. Hanas’ rosary, his Bible and his priest were all kept from him. Staff members, none of them certified or trained drug counselors or therapists, told him that Catholicism is a form of “witchcraft.” He was not only forbidden to follow his Catholic faith, but he was also tested on his learning of Pentecostal principles.

And, he was told, his rehabilitation would not be complete until he knelt at the altar and proclaimed himself “saved.”

Hanas’ only alternative was to request a transfer to another program where he would not be coerced into practicing a religious faith alien to his own. However, the judge viewed his early withdrawal from the program as an indication that Hanas was not committed to overcoming his substance abuse. The judge then took away the only opportunity Hanas had to receive affordable residential drug rehabilitation and a possible dismissal of the charges.

Programs like the one Hanas found himself in are common. In fact, these are the kind of programs that President Bush funded when he was governor of Texas; drug addiction is treated as a sin and Bible study is provided as treatment.

It is also the kind of program that Bush wants to fund under his faith-based initiatives, in which religious indoctrination is dressed up to look like social welfare.

Advocates of government-sponsored and government-funded religion say faith-based programs are constitutionally permissible as long as participation in the program is voluntary, and there is a secular alternative.

But Joe Hanas was never given a secular alternative. His choice was to either enroll in the Pentecostal program or go to jail. He wanted help and he needed rehabilitation services, but his constitutional right not to surrender his Catholic beliefs resulted in his being sentenced to boot camp and jail.

What’s disturbing about Hanas’ case is that he was placed in such a program by a court order, and that ultimately it was his commitment to his religious beliefs that led to the jail sentence.

While faith-based programs may be well-motivated and helpful for some, it is not appropriate for the government to fund them or coerce people to participate in them. There is no doubt that religiously affiliated programs can do a world of good. The work of such agencies as Catholic Family Services, Lutheran Refugee Resettlement and Jewish Vocational Services, which are performed under government contracts, have provided much-needed services to thousands of people over the years.

When these groups accept a government contract to deliver services to the community, they agree to serve the entire community and its needs. They agree to provide services without discriminating over whom they hire and serve. And they don’t require participation in religious devotional exercises as a condition of the services they are supposed to give.

Drug courts in Michigan are widely viewed as creative, cost-effective alternatives to incarceration. Because of limited state money for drug rehabilitation, programs are often operated by faith-based organizations. And as more and more drug courts are created, rehabilitation programs will be used more frequently.

The likelihood that there may be other cases like Joe Hanas’ is one reason why the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has appealed this case to the Michigan Supreme Court. It is crucial that the constitutional boundaries be clearly defined. Any entanglement between government and religion is harmful to both government and religion, not to mention Joe Hanas.

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Alexander DeLuca, M.D.

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Originally posted:  9/4/2004

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