Hindering Faith Where it is Needed the Most

In 2004 the Justice Department, under the direction of then Attorney General John Ashcroft, instituted the innocuously titled Standardized Chapel Library Project. As with many government programs, a mundane title masked a much more dramatic mission. In truth, the program posed a serious threat to the religious freedom of thousands of prisoners, limiting the availability of religious books and materials to a small “approved” list maintained by “experts” at the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The library “purgings” went on virtually unnoticed until August (of this year) when two New York inmates, one a Christian and one an Orthodox Jew, filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that the program violated their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion. On September 10th the New York Times brought the story to national prominence with this article.

Apparently the Justice Department came up with the idea in response to the 9/11 attacks and the fear that prisons might serve as fertile breading grounds for Islamic militancy. But as the president of the Prison Fellowship noted, such an approach was like “swatting a fly with a sledgehammer.” Literature with clear incitement to violence is already regulated (prudently of course) so why was such a wide reaching limitation on religious literature and freedom needed? The simple answer is that it wasn’t.

Across the political spectrum and throughout the religious community there was almost universal reaction against the program. On September 21st the New York Times ran a follow-up article (“Critics Right and Left Protest Book Removals“) detailing the uniform reaction from groups as different as the ACLU and the Republican Study Committee (made up of some of the most conservative Republican members of Congress). The Times article also provided links to the “approved” lists from each religion. As I read through the Protestant and Catholic lists, I was struck by the apparent lack of “rhyme” or “reason” in the chosen books.

The Protestant list consisted of only 215 books. Imagine how many books, not on the list, were therefore “banned.” The “experts” had, apparently, determined that authors ranging from Jonathan Edwards, Reinold Niebuhr and Karl Barth to Rick Warren and (a Crossing pastor favorite) Tim Keller were all too much of a security threat to be allowed inside federal prisons.

No doubt there is an interest in preventing religiously motivated violence in prison. Militant Islam as well as radical Christian Nationalist/racist ideologies are a problem within inmate populations and should be limited as much as possible. But such literature can already be limited under the general regulations against any literature that incites violence. The Standardized Chapel Library Project was an obvious over-reaction to the fear that continues to emanate from the attacks of September 11th.

Thankfully, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has relented somewhat and agreed to begin reshelving the discarded books (NYT story here). According to the latest Times article the Bureau still seems to intend to compile lists but “rather than packing away everything while those lists were compiled, the religious materials will remain on the shelves.” In an email a Bureau of Prisons representative stated that:

“In response to concerns expressed by members of several religious communities, the Bureau of Prisons has decided to alter its planned course of action with respect to the Chapel Library Project.

The bureau will begin immediately to return to chapel libraries materials that were removed in June 2007, with the exception of any publications that have been found to be inappropriate, such as material that could be radicalizing or incite violence. The review of all materials in chapel libraries will be completed by the end of January 2008.”

While we should be happy there seems to be some recognition of error in their policy, the “revised” posture of the Bureau is still somewhat troubling. I am skeptical that they still appear set on compiling lists at all. I am also supremely skeptical of the Bureau’s ability to do any such thing without infringing upon the religious freedom of a population in dire need of the restorative faith that may come from such freedom.

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