ACLU Announces Settlement in Case of Christian Barred from Preaching in Rhode Island Prison

July 30, 2007 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI – The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today announced the favorable settlement of its lawsuit on behalf of a Christian prisoner who has been barred since 2003 from preaching during Christian religious services at the state prison.

Wesley Spratt, an inmate at the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI), believes God called on him to preach Christianity to other prisoners at the ACI. Spratt preached during Christian services for seven years before he was unilaterally stopped from doing so based on vague and generalized “security” concerns. A federal district judge initially upheld the ban, but in April the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed that ruling and ordered a trial on the merits of the case. Today’s settlement ends the case.

“The ACLU is very pleased with the settlement reached in this case, which allows Mr. Spratt to resume his preaching at the ACI,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger. “I commend the Department of Corrections for its work in adopting a policy designed to fulfill the letter and spirit of both the First Circuit’s ruling and Congress’ goal of respecting the exercise of religious freedom by incarcerated individuals.”

The ACLU had argued that the preaching ban violated a federal law designed to protect the religious freedom of institutionalized persons. That law, known by its acronym RLUIPA, bars states from imposing any substantial burden on an inmate’s exercise of religion unless it furthers a compelling interest and is the least restrictive means available.

A judgment by U.S. District Judge William Smith today supports those arguments, concluding that the state’s “policy of blanket prohibition against all preaching by inmates substantially burdened [Spratt’s] rights under RLUIPA,” and was not “the least restrictive means available to achieve its compelling interest in maintaining prison security.” A separate settlement agreement between Spratt and the Department of Corrections notes that the state has adopted a new policy that specifically authorizes inmates to conduct religious sermons under the direction of an institutional chaplain. The settlement agreement further provides that the Department of Corrections will pay Spratt’s attorneys’ fees.

Spratt had been preaching at religious services on a weekly basis under the supervision, and with the support, of clergy at the ACI. The Department of Corrections provided no evidence of security problems during, or as the result of, his supervised preaching during the seven years he had been doing so. Nonetheless, Spratt was ordered to stop preaching when a new warden took over the maximum security facility in 2003.

The consent judgment is online at:

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