The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a group that advocates for the separation of church and state, has sent letters to judges in Oklahoma this week to warn them about "religious coercion" that allegedly takes place at a controversial Christian work camp.
A recent investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found that judges have been sending defendants into a program called the Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery (CAAIR) as an alternative to prison. The defendants are reportedly required to attend church and are put to work in chicken processing plants.
In the letter to two dozen Oklahoma judges, the FFRF warned that the overtly Christian aspects of the program are violating the defendants' constitutional rights.
"They receive only a heavy dose of religious indoctrination that is utterly repugnant to that most basic human right enshrined in our First Amendment – the freedom of conscience. From what we have learned, the depth of religious coercion in the CAAIR program is staggering," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote.
CAAIR co-founder Janet Wilkerson has previously stated that all participants at CAAIR are in the program voluntarily, but about 98 percent come through the court system hoping to avoid serving time in prison.
She further noted that its clients can decide to stop attending church services after four months in the program, which is operated by a nonprofit and accepts no state or federal funding.
In a press release on Tuesday, the FFRF said that a former CAAIR client has complained that the program's drug and alcohol counseling sessions consist "almost entirely of watching Christian-themed films and church sermons."
The group also noted that a Christian acting troupe regularly visits CAAIR to perform Christian-themed sketches.
According to Oklahoman, drug-addicted defendants participating in the program are also sent to work gutting chickens for the Arkansas-based company Simmons Foods Inc.
Last week, three Oklahoma men reportedly filed a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that they were forced to work for free in chicken processing plants while participating in the drug rehabilitation program.
"By defrauding these men and providing virtual slave labor for a private corporation, CAAIR and Simmons are not only violating longstanding labor laws, they are violating basic standards of human decency and the core concepts underpinning our constitutional democracy," the firm that filed the suit, Smolen, Smolen & Roytman, said in a statement.
The lawsuit alleges that the program violates the 13th Amendment ban on slave labor and involuntary servitude, as well as violations of state and federal labor laws, which require employers to pay employees at least minimum wage and overtime for their work.
According to Tulsa World, the participants were not compensated, and only a few who graduated from the one-year program were eligible for a $1,000 gift.
Wilkerson said that wages from the men's work go toward the cost of the program, including paying for their housing, food and classes, adding that the program is a good alternative for those who cannot afford to pay for private rehab programs.