The room is filthy and crowded, but no one notices. All eyes are riveted on a large-screen television. “America’s Most Wanted” is on, and these men are watching closely for pointers on how the crimes were committed. When the outlaw is finally apprehended, they boo and hiss-then discuss how he could have avoided getting caught.
Welcome to the rec room of the Maryland State Penitentiary, described in a recent Washington Post article. Apparently, Maryland authorities think that watching television cop shows is going to rehabilitate convicted criminals.
To add outrage to insult, last year Maryland threw roadblocks in the way of religious groups in the rehabilitation process. The state adopted a “no proselytizing” rule that effectively bars groups like Prison Fellowship from reaching non-Christians behind bars.
Many Christian ministries in Maryland prisons are being effectively handcuffed.
Eighteen years of prison ministry have led me to two inescapable conclusions. First, that our prisons are failing miserably at the task of rehabilitation. Sixty-three percent of those who are released from prison are arrested again within three years. Ninety-four percent of offenders currently behind bars have been convicted previously of another crime.
We send people to prison hoping that they’ll “learn a lesson,” and they do: how to be a better criminal.
The second conclusion is that the surest way to turn a person from a life of crime is through an encounter with God through His Son, Jesus Christ. But in order to reach inmates with the Gospel, Christian ministries must have free access to all prisoners. Exactly what the state of Maryland is trying to prevent.
The good news is that there’s a bill in Congress that could change that. Pending before the U.S. Senate right now is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It requires states to show a compelling state interest before they can take any action restricting religious freedom. A state like Maryland would have to justify its “no proselytizing” rule by showing a compelling reason for it.
The bad news is that an amendment has been proposed to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act-an amendment that excludes prisons from its application. Christian ministries could minister to anyone they like-except prison inmates. Religious rights would be guaranteed to everyone in America-except those behind bars.
This is clearly wrong. If there is any population desperately in need of the reforming power of the Gospel, it is those who have broken the law. This amendment would restrict their religious rights-in essence reducing them to second-class citizens.
And once the principle is admitted, it could be extended to other groups as well. Some people are already pressing for an exclusion for children in public schools, which would allow school authorities to restrict their religious rights. Who would be next?
The Senate is set to vote on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on October 22. This is a bill Christians ought to rally behind-and demand no amendments, no exclusions. Call us at BreakPoint and we’ll send you a fact sheet you can use to contact your senators.
Remind them that God has no second-class children. And Congress should not create any second-class citizens.
Proposed Amendments to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)
What new rights would the RFRA create? RFRA creates no new rights. It merely restores legal protection for religious free exercise that was stripped away by the Supreme Court in 1990.
How does the RFRA restore protection of religious practice? By restoring the “compelling state interest” test used by the Supreme Court for 30 years in dealing with free exercise cases. The test was abandoned in 1990 in Employment Division v. Smith (the Oregon “peyote case”).
What groups support the RFRA? It is supported by a wide range of groups across the entire political and theological spectrum, including the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals, Concerned Women for America, the Traditional Values Coalition, the First Liberty Institute, the National Council of Churches, the American Jewish Committee, the American Muslim Council, the American Civil Liberties Union, and People for the American Way.
What is the prison amendment? Some state attorney generals want to amend the RFRA to exclude legal protection of religious practice by prison inmates-in essence turning them into second-class citizens. Christian ministries to prison inmates would be severely limited.
Why do they want to amend the RFRA? They believe that the RFRA would result in an increase in litigation by prisoners claiming that their right to free exercise of religion had been violated.
Would the RFRA have such a result? No. Free exercise litigation is a minuscule part of state prison litigation. The legal standard used by courts does not appear to affect the number of cases filed.
Why should I care about the religious rights of prisoners? Religious liberty is the most cherished freedom in our bill of rights. Religion is one of the few successful influences in rehabilitating prisoners. And once the principle is admitted, eventually other groups may be excluded from protection as well. Already some groups are pushing for an exclusion for public school students, which could seriously restrict their religious rights.
What should I tell my senators? Urge them to vote YES on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, with no amendments, no exclusions, to restore the free exercise rights guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. A vote is scheduled by October 22, 1993. Please call or write before that date.
How can I get more information? For more detailed information, write the Christian Legal Society, 4208 Evergreen Lane, Suite 222, Annandale, Virginia, or call 703-642-1070.