(RNS) -- The Texas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that aChristian studies program in a county jail, which was designed torehabilitate prisoners using biblical principles, is unconstitutional. The Christian Education Unit of the Tarrant County Jail began in1992. The voluntary program offered Christian instruction that includedthe belief that a person must be "born again" to gain salvation. The sheriff's office closed the program, commonly known as the "GodPod" within hours of the decision, although it had been changed from itsoriginal form, the Associated Press reported. Two former inmates, one Jewish and the other a Jehovah's Witness,and a county resident sued, stating they believed the program violatedstate and federal constitutions. The court ruled that the program effectively gave an officialendorsement of the religious beliefs of the sheriff. Former Sheriff David Williams began the program and Jim Willett,current chief deputy of the county sheriff's department, described it as"a creature of the previous administration." The court said some religious programs, such as the hiring of achaplain to aid inmates in practicing their faith, are permitted. The American Jewish Congress, which defended an inmate in the suit,called the decision "a dramatic victory for church/state separationwhich should have repercussions nationally although it came from a statecourt." Phil Baum, the congress' executive director, hopes the decision willinfluence current discussions on Capitol Hill about expanding charitablechoice, a provision that provides government funding to religious socialservices.
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