Jan 12, 2018
BENNETTSVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA — The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has now granted religious accommodation to prison chaplains at various federal correctional institutions who were being punished for not carrying oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray as a potential weapon against inmates to whom they are tasked to minister and counsel.
The religious accommodation was granted and previous punitive measures were revoked as a result of Liberty Counsel’s letter advising the BOP that the Eric Williams Correctional Officer Protection Act of 2015 does not require chaplains to carry OC spray. Liberty Counsel also referenced Attorney General Sessions’ recent memo on religious liberty in the federal workplace.
One chaplain who had been banned from ministry to the inmates since Easter 2017 because of his principled stance was permitted to resume his ministry, just in time for a Christmas Eve service with at least 250 inmates in attendance.
Within the federal prison context, chaplains have had a long history of working unarmed because of their personal faith convictions and the pastoral nature of their role in ministering to inmates. Inmates must trust chaplains, and their presence prevents violence and assists inmates in returning to society as productive citizens.
However, after passage of the Eric Williams Correctional Officer Protection Act of 2015 requiring general policy of OC spray carry by federal correctional officers, but not necessarily chaplains, the BOP began demanding that chaplains carry OC spray and take training to use it on inmates. BOP began to punish chaplains who requested relief from the new directive. For example, one chaplain was ordered off the premises of a correctional institution after he had requested a religious accommodation. Others were subjected to various forms of coercion, both overt and subtle. Between the Act’s passage and the retaliation against the chaplains, BOP first said the Act would not apply to chaplains; then the BOP granted religious accommodations; and later revoked the accommodations and retaliated against chaplains who stood firm, thus necessitating Liberty Counsel intervention.
“Prison chaplains must be able to minister to inmates without violating their own faith convictions,” said Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver. “There is nothing wrong with carrying defensive weapons like OC spray, except when a chaplain’s convictions require him to be armed not with physical weapons, but with spiritual. As President Trump and Attorney General Sessions have instructed, federal agencies must protect religious liberty in the federal workplace and provide reasonable accommodations for religious free exercise. We are pleased that the Bureau of Prisons has accommodated the religious beliefs of our clients, so that they may return to ministry,” said Staver.
Liberty Counsel is an international nonprofit, litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family since 1989, by providing pro bono assistance and representation on these and related topics.