Freedom of Religion – Part 1

A federal appeals court ruled that a prison is only required to reasonably accommodate the religious preferences of inmates, and need not respond to every prisoner’s demands for religious expression.

Church Law and Tax 2005-03-01

Freedom of religion – Part 1

Key point. Prisons must provide reasonable opportunities for inmates to exercise their religion, but they are not required to accommodate every inmate’s religious practices.

* A federal appeals court ruled that a prison is only required to reasonably accommodate the religious preferences of inmates, and need not respond to every prisoner’s demands for religious expression. 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, “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.” Freeman v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 369 F.3d 854 (5th Cir. 2004).

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