Two former Tarrant County jail inmates and a college professor filed suit in the 352nd District Court against Tarrant County and the Tarrant County Sheriff for operating a particular jail “pod” designated as the CEU (Chaplain’s Education Unit). The CEU was established in 1992 for inmates who voluntarily participated in a Christian education and ministry program while incarcerated.
The plaintiffs argued that the creation of this “God Pod” violated the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. Tarrant County argued that because no additional taxpayer money, over and above what it ordinarily cost to house jail inmates, was expended by the taxpayers to run the program, and all ministry activities were performed by volunteers, not county employees, providing this opportunity for inmates was constitutionally permissible under the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The county also pointed out that the participants in the CEU program received no tangible benefits by virtue of participating in the program. In fact, all CEU participants were required to give up some of the privileges that they were otherwise entitled to, such as television time, in order to be included in the program. Finally, the county pointed to the fact that participation in the pod was completely voluntary – no inmates were required to participate – in order to support its contention that the CEU unit was constitutionally permissible.
On motions for summary judgment in which both sides agreed that there were no material facts in dispute in the case, the question of the constitutionality of the CEU was submitted to Judge Bonnie Sudderth for determination. Judge Sudderth ruled that since no taxpayer money or resources were used to operate the program, since enrollment in the program was completely voluntary, and since the “God Pod” inmates actually forfeited, rather than received, tangible benefits in order to participate, that the jail’s “God Pod” did not constitute government establishment of a religion in violation of the First Amendment.
Two years later, the Texas Supreme Court overruled Judge Bonnie Sudderth’s decision, holding that since the CEU endorsed one particular religious view to the exclusion of others, Tarrant County conveyed the impermissible message of official preference for one specific religion. In so ruling, the Supreme Court held that the voluntary nature of the program was irrelevant. The fact that inmates were willing to submit to the instruction, the Supreme Court reasoned, did not diminish the fact that one religious belief was promoted over other religious teachings within the pod. This “official endorsement of the substance of the religious instruction offered in the CEU,” the Court wrote, went “beyond what the First Amendment can tolerate.” Tarrant County’s message of preferring one specific religion over another, the Supreme Court held, violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Shortly after the ruling, the “God Pod” was dismantled.