Chaplains – Part 1

A federal appeals court ruled that an inmate’s constitutional rights were not violated by a prison policy.

Church Law and Tax 2004-11-01

Chaplains – Part 1

* A federal appeals court ruled that an inmate’s constitutional rights were not violated by a prison policy that did not provide him with Church of Christ religious services that included communion, singing without instruments, teaching, and an opportunity for baptism by full immersion. A prison inmate was a member of the Church of Christ faith. His prison was assigned a chaplain who was a Church of Christ member. However, the inmate found the chaplain’s teachings “too ecumenical” and a departure from established Church of Christ doctrine. He circulated a statement to fellow inmates and non-incarcerated Church of Christ leaders denouncing the chaplain as having “departed from the faith” and requesting that the chaplain be removed from his position. He also announced that he, and other inmates, were withdrawing “spiritual fellowship” from the chaplain. The inmate filed a class action on behalf of all Church of Christ inmates, claiming that the prison’s failure to provide them an adequate opportunity to practice their faith violated the first amendment’s free exercise of religion clause. The lawsuit asked the court to recognize the Church of Christ as a Christian religion separate and apart from other faiths; order prison officials to allow Church of Christ members to have one hour of separate worship time each Sunday according to tenets “essential to their salvation,” i.e., a service that offers communion and a cappella singing; and order prison officials to allow Church of Christ ministers and teachers from outside the prison to conduct individual Bible studies and assist with religious services, and perform baptism by full immersion at an inmate’s request.

The prison provided weekly religious services for what it considered to be the five “major faith sub-groups” in its prisons: Roman Catholic; Christian/non-Roman Catholic; Jewish; Muslim; and Native American. The Church of Christ fell within the Christian/non-Roman Catholic sub-group. The prison recognized that not all elements of the individual faiths can be accommodated. However, the prison offered a variety of supplemental devotional opportunities for Church of Christ members, including worship services conducted by Church of Christ volunteers who often are able to tailor the services to include communion and a cappella singing. Further, immersion baptism may be arranged for and performed by a Church of Christ minister at the inmate’s request.

A federal district court concluded that the prison’s policies did not violate the first amendment, and it dismissed the case. The inmate appealed. A federal appeals court agreed that the prison had not violated the first amendment by designating five major religious sub-groups, and providing supplemental Church of Christ services when feasible. The court concluded, “Prison regulations that impinge on fundamental constitutional rights … are valid if reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” In resolving this question, four factors are considered: (1) whether there is a rational relationship between the regulation and the legitimate government interest advanced; (2) whether the inmates have available alternative means of exercising the right; (3) the impact of the accommodation on prison staff, other inmates, and the allocation of prison resources generally; and (4) whether there are “ready alternatives” to the regulation. The court concluded that “the evidence shows that the prison’s policy satisfies [this test] and passes constitutional muster. It concluded,

The decision to offer worship services to five broad faith sub-groups, augmented by supplemental religious services to the other groups, including the Church of Christ, is eminently reasonable. Although some Church of Christ prisoners may not be able to attend a service perfectly suited to their faith, this limitation is dictated by the demands of administering religious services to tens of thousands of inmates representing widely divergent faiths. The prison’s policy provides the flexibility needed to accommodate the religious needs, to some degree, of the entire prison population …. The inmate argues that prison policy effectively bars the exercise by many Church of Christ inmates of their constitutional right to attend a Sunday service that includes communion, singing without instruments, teaching, and an opportunity for baptism by full immersion. He suggests that these elements represent tenets of his faith. In his view … participating in a generic Protestant service is not a reasonable accommodation …. This argument is without merit. The pertinent question is not whether the inmates have been denied specific religious accommodations, but whether, more broadly, the prison affords the inmates opportunities to exercise their faith. Freeman v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 369 F.3d 854 (5th Cir. 2004).

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