Lawsuit: State agency requiring employees to teach religious pri - WSMV News 4

Lawsuit: State agency requiring employees to teach religious principles

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Michael Burt (WSMV) Michael Burt (WSMV)

A federal judge is raising concerns about a program developed by a state agency, claiming it has improper religious content.

The Channel 4 I-Team obtained emails and court records that reveal how TRICOR, a state agency tasked with rehabilitating inmates, developed a motivational program for inmates that contains Christian viewpoints.

The program is based on the motivational book This Ain’t No Practice Life by Middle Tennessee resident Michael Burt.

In YouTube videos, Burt discusses both this book and his religious faith.

Court records show TRICOR paid at least $100,000 to Burt for assistance in developing a motivational program for inmates, and then required some employees to teach it.

One of those employees, Joseph Baker, an operations manager at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, is suing TRICOR in federal court, citing that the agency was requiring state employees to each religious principles.

In a witness interview, Baker said, “I realized that the entire book just went against every religious conscience that I have.”

The lawsuit cites repeated instances where the book contains religious materials, including references to God or the Creator.

An email by Baker sent to his superiors at the prison shows him writing, “I found the book to be vacillating, unhinged and indoctrinating … please schedule someone else for my training.”

An email by Baker’s superior said he couldn’t be excused from the training.

Baker’s lawsuit claims that he was requires to watch videos that include religious principles set forth in Burt’s book.

Baker claims in his lawsuit that he could be threatened by inmates who have different religious beliefs.

While no one from TRICOR could comment because of the pending litigation, their lawyer responded in court, writing that the program contained no religious content.

U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger expressed doubt, writing that “the court cannot overlook the improper religious aspects that are present throughout the coaching program.”

Trauger issued a preliminary injunction order that requires TRICOR to stop forcing Baker to teach the program.

A TRICOR spokeswoman would not comment on whether they are continuing the program based on Burt’s book.

While Burt is not being sued and is not named in the lawsuit, he did issue the I-Team the following statement:

My life's message has been that 'Everybody needs a coach in life' because we can't see the picture when we are inside the frame and sometimes it takes the help of another to help us uncover our own potential. I believe the prison system of rehabilitation is broken as the US is reportedly spending double the amount on prisons than on education. TRICOR contracted my firm in an effort to add a coach to the equation and build a coaching process to decrease recidivism where the supervisor became a coach to the offender since they were with the offender for up to eight hours per day and could influence them in a positive manner. My book ‘This Ain't No Practice Life’ is a personal growth book that outlines a process of seven decisions that helps a person find their unique talents in the world so they can contribute at meaningful levels in life. The coaching that was attached to the book focused on equipping the supervisors to become coaches to the offenders in an innovative approach to prison rehabilitation that focused on building knowledge, skills, desire, and confidence in every participating offender. With a coach I believe the offender can get the vital skills they need to be productive in the world and at the end of the day this was the whole purpose of the training and the book.

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