ACLU Says Bureau of Prisons Again Attempting to Illegally Ban Religious Material

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Will Matthews, (212) 549-2582 or 2666; media@aclu.org

ACLU Says Bureau of Prisons Again Attempting to Illegally Ban Religious Material

Proposed Rule Would Restrict Prisoners’ Religious Freedom

WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union today filed formal comments opposing
a proposed rule by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that would illegally
empower prison officials to ban vital religious works from prison
chapel libraries, despite a law passed last year prohibiting them from
doing so. The proposed rule, which would allow material to be banned
based on a mere determination that it "could...suggest" violence or
criminal behavior, directly contradicts the Second Chance Act which
places strict limits on what material BOP officials may outlaw.

The ACLU's comments, which have been
signed by a diverse coalition of religious organizations including the
Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the American Jewish
Congress and Muslim Advocates, were submitted for consideration to
BOP's Office of General Counsel.

"BOP officials need to follow the
law, not engage in the business of banning religious material," said
David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project.
"Distributing and reading religious material is as protected under the
First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as worshipping in churches or
preaching from the pulpits. It is not the role of the government to
dictate what is religiously acceptable."

In 2007, it was revealed that BOP
officials had been purging from prison chapel libraries any material
that was not on a list of "acceptable" publications that the libraries
could maintain. Among those titles banned at the time were Maimonides'
"Code of Jewish Law" and "The Purpose Driven Life" by the Rev. Rick
Warren, who recently delivered the invocation at President Obama's
inauguration.

The revelation sparked harsh
criticism from lawmakers and religious leaders across a broad
ideological spectrum and prompted Congress to pass the Second Chance
Act. The Act allows BOP to restrict only those materials "that seek to
incite, promote or otherwise suggest the commission of violence or
criminal activity" or "any other materials prohibited by any other law
or regulation." The Act explicitly forbids any further attempt "by
whatever designation that seeks to restrict prisoners' access to
reading materials, audiotapes, videotapes or any other materials made
available in a chapel library."

Despite the existence of the Act,
however, BOP's proposed regulation restricts prisoners' access to
materials in defiance of the law. The watered-down standard in the
proposed rule would allow any book to be banned if it is determined
that it "could...suggest" violence or criminal activity, regardless of
whether there is any intent to cause violence or even a reasonable
possibility that violence will result. Works such as the Bible, the
Qur'an and Martin Luther King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" could
be left vulnerable because, theoretically, they could suggest violence
or criminal activity to a reader.

The proposed rule would also allow
BOP to ban books that are seen as "advocating or fostering violence,
vengeance or hatred toward particular religious, racial or ethnic
groups" or books that are deemed to advocate "for the overthrow or
destruction of the United States."

"The 2007 attempt to censor
religious materials in federal prisons was so at odds with our
constitutional values that Congress passed legislation to ensure that
it would never happen again," said Jennifer Bellamy, criminal justice
legislative counsel for the ACLU. "Arbitrarily banning religious
material is no less unacceptable today."

Other signatories to the ACLU's
comments are the American Jewish Committee, the United Methodist
Church's General Board of Church and Society, the General Conference of
Seventh-day Adventists, International CURE, the Aleph Institute, the
Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Jewish Council for
Public Affairs and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

A copy of the ACLU's comments on BOP's proposed rule is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison/restrict/39036res20090317.html

Additional information about the ACLU National Prison Project is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison

 

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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