ACLU Says Bureau Of Prisons Again Attempting To Illegally Ban Religious Material

March 17, 2009 12:00 am

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Proposed Rule Would Restrict Prisoners’ Religious Freedom

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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:

Additional information about the ACLU National Prison Project is available online at:

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