Sunday, March 20, 2005

Religion imprisoned

From: The Sun

Rarely do Christians and Satanists play on the same team.

But politics make for unlikely alliances.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Monday that challenge governments' ability to limit religious freedoms in prisons and other institutions.

In one corner the state of Ohio, which claims prisoners use religious services to organize violent gangs. The state will argue that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, gives preferential treatment to religious prisoners, violating the First Amendment.

In the other corner a group of inmates supported by unexpected allies: civil libertarians and social conservatives, Jews and neo-Nazis, President Bush and former President Clinton.

"The most important religious liberty case before the Supreme Court this term is Cutter v. Wilkinson,' said Jared Leland, media and legal counsel for the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of 50 civil liberties and religious organizations that include Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and American Indians.

The court's ruling is expected in June.

If the law is struck down, Jews and Muslims could be forced to handle pork, Catholics could be prevented from wearing the crucifix, American Indians could be required to cut their hair and any religion deemed dangerous could be blacklisted, Leland said.

Constitutional scholars do not believe the court will rule against the law because it benefits all religions: The more obscure the belief, the greater the law's need.

"Chances are this will be seen as a constitutionally permissible accommodation for religious liberty and not a cracking in the wall of the separation of church and state,' said Jesse H. Choper, a UC Berkeley law professor who specializes in church-state issues.

It is unclear how the law has improved religious practices at local prisons and jails and if they would be affected by the high court's ruling. Safety first

At San Bernardino County's Central Detention Center, which boards an average of 550 federal inmates daily, sheriff's Capt. Larry Brown said the jail lacks the staff and facilities to offer much more than chaplain prayer and chow-hall chapel services.

"Safety always has to come first. That is usually our problem here,' said Brown, who runs the jail in downtown San Bernardino. "The more you move them around, the more you have problems.'

The jail is bound by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act's requirements because the U.S. government pays the county to house federal inmates, who make up more than half the jail's population.

At the California Institution for Men in Chino, the law has not improved religious services, said Michael Nichols, a staff chaplain.

The Sun was unable to speak with inmates at the Chino prison because it was on lockdown when a reporter was allowed to visit. Brown declined access to inmates at the Central Detention Center.

In Ohio, several inmates claim the state has infringed on their religious rights. They are of various religions, including Wicca, Satanism and the Christian Identity Church, which advocates violence against nonwhites and Jews.

"Ohio is not opposed to religion in prisons,' said Douglas R. Cole, Ohio's state solicitor and lead attorney in Cutter v. Wilkinson. "But Ohio thinks that religious practice needs to be appropriately balanced with safety needs in prisons. State prisons officials are best able to decide, and they shouldn't have their hands tied by Congress.'

In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the current law's predecessor, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The high court said the 1993 law overstepped Congress' authority and infringed on states' rights to manage their own prisons.

The 1993 law still applies, however, to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Unlikely allies

After three years of work, Congress drafted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Sponsored by two senators of very different political beliefs Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. the law skirted its predecessor's downfall by making it a requirement on states and counties that take federal money for their prisons and jails.

"If you don't want to comply with the federal act, don't accept federal funds,' said Leland. "It's as simple as that.'

The tactic has been used by Congress before. In 1984, it passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which told every state to set its drinking age at 21 or else lose federal transportation dollars.

The Supreme Court upheld this law in a 1987 case, South Dakota v. Dole.

When the court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, only Justice John Paul Stevens said the law unconstitutionally endorsed religion.

The composition of the court has not changed since, which encourages supporters of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The law has been upheld by four federal courts of appeals, including the 9th Circuit in San Francisco. But the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati sided in 2003 with the state of Ohio.

"If (the law) is overturned, it makes it much easier for all religious practices to be obstructed. It doesn't matter what it is,' said Chaplain Gary Friedman, spokesman for the American Correctional Chaplains Association.

"If you prevent one faith from its religious practices, it can domino and often does.'

In general, the California Department of Corrections allows more religious freedom than other state prison systems, Friedman said.

But the men's prison in Chino "is one of the worst in the state,' said Nichols, the chaplains' representative to the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees.

The prison is so often on lockdown, most inmates can't speak with chaplains, let alone attend religious services, Nichols said.

"You have to have consistency of the program,' he said, "and we do not have any consistency. So we are doomed to failure.'

The minimum-security portion of the prison, which houses the least violent criminals and allows for more religious exercise than other parts, was on lockdown during a tour by a reporter last week. An inmate had been slashed in the yard shortly after breakfast.

"We try to afford all those that want religious services,' said corrections Sgt. Ari Sams, prison spokesman. "Based on the situation of a particular day, that dictates whether or not an inmate will be able to continue that daily schedule.' Divided chapel

The minimum-security portion has a chapel divided into two rooms. In one there are Islamic prayer mats and Catholic decorations. The other has walls that bear both the Christian cross and the Jewish Star of David.

The prison also has a sweat lodge for American Indian purification ceremonies, which are held weekly for about 35 inmates.

"There are only two things they have left when they come to prison: their identity and their religion,' said Chaplain Al Davis, a Protestant minister on staff.

When the five staff chaplains two Protestants, one Muslim, one Jewish and one American Indian are thrown a religious curveball, such as Wicca witchcraft they seek literature and community members who can better minister to the inmate.

Inmates in the prison's maximum-security central facility are not allowed to go to chapel. Chaplains walk the tiers and talk to them.

But even that practice often is limited, as it was in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 10 killing of corrections Officer Manuel Gonzalez.

Nichols has cited the death as a tragic example of what prisoners are driven to when they can't practice religion. Inmate Jon Christopher Blaylock is the suspected killer. Women's prison

It's a different world at the California Institution for Women near Chino. The prison has about 1,900 inmates. Though it houses everyone from minimum-security inmates to Manson Family members, the women mingle freely in a collegiate-like grassy quad.

"They don't have to utilize the chapel to communicate,' Warden Dawn Davison said during a tour last week. "When they go to religious services, it is because they want to have God in their life.

"For many of them, it has saved them.'

Little research has been done on religion's ability to rehabilitate the 2 million incarcerated American men and women.

"It's very difficult to measure religiousness,' said Harry R. Dammer, chairman of the sociology and criminal justice department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. "How am I going to measure how religious you are compared to me?'

Anecdotally, though, everyone has heard stories about a person who went to jail for murder and found religion.

"People who commit crimes are broken people, wounded people, people who have pain. Religion gives you comfort,' said Romarilyn Baker, a 40-year-old Catholic who is serving 17 years to life at the women's prison.

"Committing the crime of murder was devastating to me,' she said. "I didn't only break my heart; my soul ached. I had to seek God.'

Baker wears a crucifix on a chain around her neck that she constantly clutches for comfort.

Prison officials, and especially chaplains, say stories like hers show "jailhouse religion' is often a good thing. Creating a religion

Seen as a threat to the exercise of religion are faiths that inmates draft for special treatment. Friedman, the chaplain association spokesman, mentioned an inmate who created a religion that included as sacraments sirloin steak and Baileys Irish Cream.

This is indicative, he said, of the single flaw in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act: It is too broad in what it defines as a legitimate religion.

But prisons do have the authority to investigate the sincerity of an inmate's faith.

"The concern raised by Ohio about gang activity and sham religious beliefs espoused for other reasons that sometimes exists. But the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was drafted to address that,' said David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The law's broadness is the reason it likely will survive the constitutional test, supporters said. They hope the Supreme Court agrees.

"Inmates are on the bottom of the totem pole. It is hard for them to get anything,' said Rabbi Menachem Katz, director of prison and military programs at a Surfside, Fla.,-based Jewish organization, The Aleph Institute.

"It is not like (the law) is this magical thing that opens all the doors. But at least it keeps the door cracked.'