Law Requiring Certain Number of Catholic Prison Chaplains Upheld

California law allows for chaplains to be hired based on number of religious inmates.

Church Law and Tax 1993-01-01 Recent Developments

Clergy – Selection

A California appeals court upheld a state prison regulation limiting certain chaplaincy positions to Catholic priests who were approved by their bishop. California law permits prison wardens to hire full-time chaplains of a particular faith if warranted by the number of inmates of that faith. Because of the large number of Catholic inmates, most prisons hire full-time Catholic chaplains. A former Roman Catholic priest applied for a position as a Catholic chaplain at a state prison, and was rejected when the local bishop would not issue him a letter of authorization. The former priest sued the state, claiming that the preference for Roman Catholic chaplains was an unconstitutional “establishment of religion.” A state appeals court disagreed. The court began its opinion by emphasizing that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom requires prisons to provide chaplains to inmates. It observed: “By necessity government has deprived members of the armed forces and inmates of the opportunity to practice their faith at places of their choice. To accommodate the fundamental and constitutionally recognized need of these persons to exercise their religious beliefs, government has long relied on the practical substitute of providing for chaplains representative of the religious creeds of those deprived of their freedom and placed in their care.” The only remaining question was “whether the Department [of Correction’s] practice of letting the Roman Catholic Church decide whether a priest is theologically and ecclesiastically qualified to serve as a Catholic chaplain excessively entangles government with religion. The Department requires that all applicants for the position be ordained, accredited by and in good standing with the Roman Catholic Church. The Department independently decides which, among all applicants meeting this threshold criteria, will be hired.” The court concluded that this practice, of letting a church determine which clergy are qualified to serve as chaplains, was legally permissible and did not violate the first amendment prohibition of an establishment of religion: “Rather than constituting excessive entanglement [between church and state], we find the Department’s practice of letting the Roman Catholic Church decide which priests are theologically and ecclesiastically qualified to serve as Catholic chaplains, a safeguard against the doctrinal entanglement in religious issues prohibited by the establishment clause. Accordingly, the practice protects rather than subverts first amendment values.” The court continued: “[T]he only means by which Roman Catholic inmates can exercise fundamental aspects of their religious life such as instruction, mass, receipt of sacraments, and other religious rites, is by having access to a priest ordained, accredited by and in good standing with the Roman Catholic Church. The state’s current requirements for Catholic chaplaincy positions assure such access for Roman Catholic inmates and we find that they do not violate the establishment clause ….” It is interesting to note that the court relied in part on the New Testament in reaching its decision. It observed: “See Acts 18:12-16, describing Gallio’s refusal, as proconsul of Achaia, to judge a claim that Paul ‘was inducing people to worship God in ways that are against the law.’ Because it was a matter of religious law, Gallio told Paul’s accusers, ‘you may see to it yourselves; I have no mind to be a judge of these matters.’ And he had them ejected from the court.” Duffy v. California State Personnel Board, 283 Cal. Rptr. 622 (Cal. App. 3 Dist. 1991).

See Also: Initiating the Relationship

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