A U.S. court has opened the door to restrictions on religious practices that are not considered “mandatory” by the faith.
That’s the concern of the Rutherford Institute, which worked with other faith groups to ask the high court to overturn a lower court’s approval of a prison policy that deprived a Christian inmate of a Bible.
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.
An appeal was submitted to the Supreme Court by groups that work with the three Abrahamic faiths.
John Whitehead, Rutherford’s president, said the 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.”
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.
Now his organization is reporting the high court refused even to hear the case.
The rejection, he said, “paved the way for government officials to restrict religious activities that are not deemed to be ‘mandatory’ religious practices.”
He explained the lower courts had ruled that the prison’s denial of a readable Bible was not a “‘substantial burden’ on the prisoner’s right to exercise his religion because he could not show that reading the Bible daily was a mandatory practice of Christianity.”
“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 wrote.
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.”
And they could go further, Rutherford contended.
“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.”