Commentary

05.25.15

Does Being in Jail Mean You Give Up Your Religious Rights?

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ChurchandState Street Sign

Given our state’s overcrowded jails and prisons, it’s only fitting we keep a particularly sharp focus on prisoners’ constitutional rights by guarding their First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

Incident One: December 2014

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by the federal lawsuit initiated in December 2014 by a 24-year-old Rocky River woman, who is a Muslim. Her suit alleges that, while serving a 60-day sentence in Cuyahoga County Jail for a misdemeanor offense, she was “forced to attend weekly Christian prayer services against her will.” She says she was coerced under threat of solitary confinement, and “chastised and mocked” when she didn’t actively participate.

In February of this year, the county denied these charges categorically. One complaint could be explained as an isolated incident, but second incident followed a few months later. This would suggest, at the very least, that a closer look at what’s happening is needed.

Incident Two: April 2015

In April, a 26-year-old woman, also a Muslim, sued Sheriff Clifford Pinkney and Cuyahoga County in federal district court for being forced to participate in Christian religious services while she served a six-month stint at Cuyahoga County Jail. She said a corrections officer told her refusing to participate would result in being removed from her low-security residential area. And, according to her attorney, “The preacher in question—and it was typically, if not always, the same preacher—read from the Bible, including the New Testament, led the inmates in religious hymns with a Christian emphasis and character, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and worshipped Jesus Christ as the Son of God.” Further, the minister “would … single out those who did not enthusiastically participate.”

Because we’re all Americans, it’s our responsibility to defend civil liberties on behalf of all people, including those who are incarcerated.

It’s Time to Investigate

Because we’re all Americans, it’s our responsibility to defend civil liberties on behalf of all people, including those who are incarcerated. An injustice to one person is an injustice to us all.

The freedom to practice your religion without government interference, and to not be forced into practicing another religion against your will, is one of the most sacred rights we have as Americans. These allegations must be investigated fully and treated in the serious manner they deserve.

Fred Ross is a volunteer with the ACLU of Ohio.

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