A chaplain at the Shakopee women's prison who says she was fired for being too critical of a controversial evangelical Christian program has reached a settlement in her lawsuit against the state.

Under the agreement, Presbyterian minister Kristine Holmgren will get $227,500. The program she criticized, InnerChange Freedom Initiative, is still being used in two Minnesota state prisons.

The Department of Corrections defended the program's effectiveness and said there are no immediate plans to dismantle it, despite the settlement reached this week.

Holmgren said she's glad her nearly five year court battle is over but doesn't "feel like justice will be served until InnerChange Freedom Initiative is out of the prison system in Minnesota. The money was never the issue for me. I'm an American citizen ... was working for the state of Minnesota, and my constitutional rights were violated when I was told to shut up about something I found to be illegal and questionable and a violation of other people's rights."

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative provides "educational, values-based services" to prisoners on a voluntary basis to help prepare them to reenter the workplace, religious and community life and family and social relationships, according to a program spokeswoman. It is based on values reflected in the teachings of Jesus Christ, but is open to inmates of all faiths or no faith, she said.

Complaints of coercion

Holmgren, who has written for the Star Tribune opinion pages, claimed she was terminated after working nearly six months in 2006 at Shakopee women's prison because she raised issues with her superiors about "improprieties that were occurring." Her suit said inmates told her they felt coerced to convert and adopt the program's viewpoints. The inmates also reported ministry leaders "engaged in humiliation tactics, they were offensive, they singled out minorities and unmarried women, harassed lesbians and praised the superiority of men."

When Holmgren began to question the program, the suit said, the warden at the time warned her that she could be fired.

State officials have previously maintained Holmgren was not fired because of her criticisms of the prison programs, but because of a change in the classification of her job. In June 2010, the Minnesota Court of Appeals sided with Holmgren.

Program works, state says

John Schadl, director of communications for the Department of Corrections, said the program has been effective and that it's not "the position of Corrections to prefer one faith over another but to provide services to the inmates so they can be successful upon release. That's the ultimate goal here."

He said a number of faith-based programs operate in state prison facilities. The InnerChange Freedom Initiative received some taxpayer funding when the program started in 2002 at Lino Lakes men's prison but no longer does, Schadl said.

Schadl said the program is still in use at Shakopee and Lino Lakes and the Corrections Department is considering renewing the contract.

The Virginia-based Prison Fellowship operates InnerChange, which has eight programs in five states. After a court challenge in Iowa by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis in 2007 found that the program promoted religion, and taxpayer money could not be used to finance it.

Alex Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the group believes the program should not be used in any state prison system.

"If the prisoners don't appear to be accepting the program's religious beliefs, they can end up being treated negatively," he said.

Rose French • 612-673-4352