Prisoner Holding Cigarette Between Bars

A court ruling that deprived a Christian prison inmate of a Bible is being challenged as a violation to the First Amendment.

Conraad Hoever, held in Florida’s Franklin Correctional Institution, was placed in solitary confinement in 2013 for “disrespecting” a prison guard, and he asked to have a Bible with him.

Hoever, who “believes that he is called to study the Bible daily and that these daily devotionals prevent him from falling from grace,” had asked for one of the three Bibles he already owned.

The prison refused, only to relent and give him a Spanish-language Bible, which he could not read. Hoever then sued and lost in the courts.

Now, organizations that work with the three Abrahamic faiths have joined in a brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

“This case is about so much more than just one prisoner’s right to read a Bible. It’s about recognizing that in a prison state or police state, which is what we now have, there is no difference between the treatment meted out to a law-abiding citizen and a convicted felon: both are equally suspect and treated as criminals, without any of the special rights and privileges reserved for the governing elite,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute.

Whitehead’s organization works with a wide range of faith traditions, often representing Christians, and he was joined by the Muslim Advocates and National Council of Jewish Women in the filing.

“At a time when America’s prison population is growing, laws criminalizing the most mundane activities are on the rise, states have a financial incentive to keep private prisons at capacity, and the courts are inclined to side with law enforcement in matters of security, we would do well to keep in mind that whatever treatment is meted out to ‘the least of these’ in our society is no different from how the rest of us will eventually be treated. In the government’s eyes, we are all prisoners of the American police state,” Whitehead said.

The request explains: “For many faiths, certain observances are important but not mandatory. In a free exercise case, a plaintiff must establish that the government imposed a burden on a religious practice. The court of appeals furthered confusion in the lower courts by holding that only interference with a practice mandated by an incarcerated person’s faith can burden the incarcerated person’s right to the free exercise of religion.”

The question, the filing argues, is whether federal law allows an inmate to recover compensatory damages against prison officials who violate the First Amendment.

It states that Hoever, “who is Christian, was denied such a ‘reasonable opportunity’ to practice his religion. Prison officials refused petitioner’s request for an English-language Christian Bible during his time in solitary … providing him instead with only a Spanish-language Bible he could not read.”

The lower court’s decision to throw out the case needs review, the brief contends, because it “fails to protect the petitioner’s religious freedom.”

The three groups said they take no position on the underlying criminal conviction but pointed out that the lower court ruling requires “state actors to make religious decisions” on what is mandatory and what is not.

Consequently, prisons could ban any religious activity that they considered “non-mandatory.”

In fact, they could go further.

“Requiring a showing of mandatory practices may exclude not only certain religious practices, but entire religions. Under a construction of the Free Exercise Clause that protects only mandatory religious practices, religions that lack the concepts of commandments necessary for the salvation of the soul would find themselves outside the scope of the First Amendment protection altogether.”

Rutherford’s joint filing explained: “During the 26 days that Hoever spent in solitary confinement, he was unable to exercise his right to practice his Christian faith by reading the Bible.” But, they said, “even non-mandatory religious practices are protected from infringement by the First Amendment and that prisoners, particularly those who practice minority religions, are in danger of being cut off from engaging in many spiritual practices they need to sustain them through incarceration.”

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