Virginia jail ends 'God Pod' after Muslim inmates sue

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A Virginia jail has ended a program which inmates dubbed the "God Pod" after a lawsuit alleged the program provided favorable treatment to Christians and discriminated against Muslims.

Court documents show the Riverside Regional Jail south of Richmond ended the program on the advice of counsel after a lawsuit was filed last year by Muslim inmates represented by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

A judge in federal court in Alexandria heard arguments Friday on whether the Life Learning Program implemented by a jail chaplain violated constitutional prohibitions against establishment of religion.

Inmates said those in the "God Pod" received preferred status such as their own cell and use of a television and microwave.

Jail officials acknowledged the program was built on biblical principles but said it was open to all faiths.

Deborah Kane, a lawyer for the chaplain who was in charge of the program, said that the Bible is a religious text accorded respect in Judaism and Islam, so it's wrong to assume a Bible-based curriculum favors Christians.

"Just because it's biblically-based doesn't mean it leads to this entanglement of religion," she said.

The chaplain who ran the program worked for the Richmond-based Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, which had a contract to provide chaplain services at Riverside.

On its website, Good News says its mission is to "bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to prisoners." Depositions taken during the course of the lawsuit reveal that Good News employs more than 90 chaplains who provide services to prisons and jails in 22 states. Ten correctional facilities have Life Learning Programs like those that earned the "God Pod" moniker at Riverside.

Gadeir Abbas, a CAIR lawyer, said the evidence shows only Christians were hand-picked to live in the God Pod, despite the assertions in court that the program was open to all. He said the evidence is clear that the only people who could avail themselves of the program and its amenities "were those willing to commit themselves to a lifetime of living in accordance with the Bible."

"Riverside Regional Jail delegated all of its chaplain functions to a proselytizing Christian organization," Abbas said.

The lawsuit also faulted the jail for failing to provide timely meals to Muslim inmates during Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.

U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga said he would issue a decision at a later date. He could rule in favor of either the plaintiffs or the jail as a matter of law, or he could allow the case to be decided by a jury trial.