The Houston Chronicle reported last week that Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention are sponsoring a four-year degree program at a state prison in Rosharon, Texas. Heralded as the first of its kind in Texas, long-term offenders will have an opportunity to earn a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies under the tutelage of Southwestern seminary professors. Benjamin Phillips, the director of the program, explains:
The idea here is that these are long-term offenders….They will have a long time to invest in the system before they leave – if they do get out. They are the people who will make a difference in the internal culture of the Texas prison system, and that then will have an effect when guys get out, so it’s a longer term strategy, if you will.
This program is the brainchild of Texas state senators Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and John Whitmire (D-Houston). Based on a similar Louisiana program at Angola Prison sponsored by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, the program is voluntary and supported by private donations. No taxpayer funds will be used.
Organizers have described the program as non-denominational with no requirement to be Baptist or to convert to participate or graduate.
According to State Sen. Patrick, Texas has religious programs at all of its 112 state prisons and has faith-based programs and initiatives involving more than 2,700 convicts at 24 prisons.
Several groups have voiced concerns over the seminary program.
The program appears to overstep the permissible bounds of religious chaplaincy programs in prisons, which are not supposed to proselytize, said Alex Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“Imagine the public outcry that would arise if the state were to partner with Muslim institutions and train them to be imams and turn them out to minister Islam to other inmates,” Luchenitser said.
Texas criminal justice reform advocate Scott Henson writes on his blog Grits for Breakfast:
On one hand I can understand the impetus. Since the invention of the penitentiary religious reformers have believed prisons should actively seek to promote spiritual transformation. On the other, I’m not sure there’s evidence religious education benefits prisoners more than the educational initiatives recently gutted at the Windham School District in TDCJ, and clearly there’s nobody out there beating the bushes for “private grants and donations” to keep those programs running.
Henson questions whether Southwestern Seminary is even capable running a program that is truly non-denominational. However, Henson seems to misunderstand what is meant by “non-denominational” in this context. “Non-denominational” appears to mean only that there is no denominational litmus test for admission to the program. All of the program’s professors will be Baptist as Southwestern Seminary is supplying the teachers and only hires Baptists.
Also, Southwestern professors are required to teach according to the Southern Baptist Convention’s confession of faith (Baptist Faith & Message 2000). So, while the program may be non-denominational in its admissions policies, the curriculum will certainly be sectarian.
I’m not arguing that prisoners should be denied this opportunity at a free four-year degree. I just wonder how prison officials would respond to a request from a non-evangelical institution to partner with the state on a similar initiative.
For more on this debate, see the blog by Alan Bean of Friends of Justice. Bean is an ordained Baptist minister.
Check out a few additional noteworthy Baptist-related reads from the past week:
- Mark Osler: Gay at Baylor – A Christian Challenge (Huffington Post)
- Former Baylor Law Professor Calls On University to Change Policy on Gays (KWTX)
- Dear Baptists: We Are All Secularists Now (www.thebigdaddyweave.com)
- Back to Ebenezer: Historic Atlanta Church Restored to Civil Rights Era (Baptists Today)
- Downgrading Dominionism (Douglas E. Baker, Union University)
- Race Relations, Affirmative Action & The Church (Ed Stetzer, Lifeway)