State challenges status of religion, calls it 'gang'

Iowa authorities have renewed a 30-year effort to dismantle a prison religion they say is nothing more than a front for a white-supremacist gang.

State authorities have filed federal court papers seeking to overturn a 1974 judge's order that gave formal status on the Church of the New Song, or CONS.

Iowa lawyers, citing evidence that has not yet been made public, contend that the prison religion is a security threat and that "regular meetings of CONS have been used to plan bad acts, including assaults."

Inmate adherents of the religion, meanwhile, insist that they have been singled out for their beliefs and put into high-security lock-down in the state prison at Fort Madison solely because of the church. A lawsuit filed in November contends that the gang CONS members allegedly formed does not exist. The inmates seek more than $1.5 million and a ruling that they've been the victims of religious persecution.

That lawsuit has been pushed to the side, however, since Iowa attorneys filed December court papers seeking to revisit the whole notion of whether CONS deserves constitutional protection as a religion.

State lawyers and corrections officials have refused to discuss the matter. But papers filed in federal court in Des Moines contend that "CONS is a white supremacist prison gang involved in threatening, coercive and illegal conduct which poses a threat to the security and well-being of inmates and staff in the prison."

Patrick Ingram, an Iowa City attorney appointed to represent the prisoners, said state authorities "can't point to anything and say, 'This is that part that's white supremacist.' "

Founded in the 1970s by Harry Theriault, a federal prisoner in Atlanta, the Church of the New Song once considered porterhouse steaks one of its communion elements. Church leaders testified in the early 1970s that a basic tenet of CONS is that an individual's desires should take precedent over any authority, so long as his or her actions bring about inner peace and do not interfere with the inner peace of others.

In 1997, a group of Fort Madison inmates led by George Goff sued Iowa officials, arguing that they were being discriminated against because the prison refused to send trays of food from a church-sponsored "Celebration of Life" banquet to prisoners who were locked down in disciplinary units.

The inmates won their case at the district court level but lost on appeal.

A three-judge panel said new evidence, including some secret testimony from prison informants, appeared to show that the church is a "sham religion that exists only in the prison context."