NEWS STORY: Prison ministry group lobbies against changes in religious freedom law

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ Justice Fellowship, the public policy arm of Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship, Tuesday (May 13) took petitions with 30,000 signatures to Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to resist exempting prisoners from a 1993 law making it difficult for government to interfere in religious practices.”If religious liberty is not secure for prisoners then it is not secure for anyone,”Colson told a group of supporters on the Capitol steps at a news conference to launch the First Freedom Campaign.

The campaign aims to build opposition to changes in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 law that says government must show a compelling interest before it can interfere with a person’s religious practices. The constitutionality of RFRA is currently under review by the Supreme Court in a case that is expected to be decided in early summer.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., acting on behalf of a number of prison officials and states’ attorneys general, is seeking to exempt prisons from having to comply with the stringent requirements of the law.

Reid said his bill would stop the national increase in the number of frivolous lawsuits by prisoners who claim infringement of religious rights.”With fully stocked prison law libraries at their disposal and time on their hands, prisoners are using RFRA to clog up our courts,”Reid said.”I am a strong believer in religion as a means of redemption, but I can’t stomach allowing people like Charles Manson to use RFRA to practice Satan worship.” Reid said that under RFRA there has been an increase in requests by prison inmates to perform animal sacrifices and Bible burnings as well as demands for gang items, weapons and hate material for allegedly religious purposes.

Reid’s legislation would prohibit the application of RFRA to anyone incarcerated in a federal, state or local prison.

But Colson, joined by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said that if the Reid measure is passed, it would hamper the efforts of such groups as Prison Fellowship to work with prisoners and perhaps change their lives.

He said the effort to block Reid’s legislation is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, as well as Baptist, Roman Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, Muslim and Scientology groups.

Coats said he would vote against Reid’s bill because”it seeks to give prison officials total discretion to deny prisoners all religious rights, unless prisoners can prove that prison officials are expressly targeting religion.” Coats cited studies that show how religion has been proven effective in reducing repeat criminal activity.

But Reid’s spokeswoman, Jenny Backus, estimated 40 percent of all civil cases in Nevada were brought by prisoners using RFRA in 1993. She said Reid wants to end lawsuits by prisoners who want permission to practice,”satanic worship, Wicca, witchcraft and Bible burning and other satanic rites.” Deborah Phillips of Justice Fellowship, the Colson-led organization overseeing the new campaign, however, said Reid has exaggerated the number of cases brought by prisoners under RFRA. Citing statistics from the Office of the U.S. Courts, Phillips said 50 inmate-filed RFRA cases were reported in the past two years, accounting for less than 5 percent of all prisoner-filed lawsuits and less than 1 percent of all civil cases nationwide.

The Rev. Dennis McManus, the Roman Catholic chaplain at San Quentin State Penitentiary in California, said he was sympathetic to both sides of the Reid-Colson debate.”RFRA muddies the waters a bit,”said McManus.”All sorts of freaky groups could insist on performing bizarre activities.” McManus said he thought it possible under RFRA that San Quentin’s more than 400 death row inmates could request 400 different types of state-paid chaplains,”which would become difficult to manage.” George Wagner, warden at Berks County Prison in Reading, Pa., said education is more important than religion in reducing repeat offenders, but he does not support the Reid bill.”There should have been more details about prisoner’s religious activity spelled out in the original RFRA,”said Wagner.”But still, we have not had any requests for chicken killings around here yet.” MJP END GAMBER

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