(RNS) -- The Texas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a Christian studies program in a county jail, which was designed to rehabilitate prisoners using biblical principles, is unconstitutional. The Christian Education Unit of the Tarrant County Jail began in 1992. The voluntary program offered Christian instruction that included the belief that a person must be "born again" to gain salvation. The sheriff's office closed the program, commonly known as the "God Pod" within hours of the decision, although it had been changed from its original 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 violated state and federal constitutions. The court ruled that the program effectively gave an official endorsement 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 a chaplain 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 separation which should have repercussions nationally although it came from a state court." Phil Baum, the congress' executive director, hopes the decision will influence current discussions on Capitol Hill about expanding charitable choice, a provision that provides government funding to religious social services.
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