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ACLU and ADF: Protecting Prisoners' Rights Together

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
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March 20, 2009

As the New York Times reported this week, the ACLU and the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) — a conservative Christian organization that is currently promoting a publication entitled The ACLU vs. America — are typically on opposite sides of contentious issues like religious expression in schools and same-sex marriage.

But there is at least one thing that we can agree upon: the right of federal prisoners to have access to religious material while in prison.

David Shapiro of the ACLU’s National Prison Project and the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office on Tuesday filed formal comments opposing a proposed rule by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that would illegally empower prison officials to ban vital religious works from prison chapel libraries. The proposed rule, which would allow material to be banned based on a determination that it “could…suggest” violence or criminal behavior, directly contradicts the Second Chance Act, a law passed last year which places strict limits on what material BOP officials may outlaw.

The comments were signed by a group of religious organizations that included the American Jewish Congress, Muslim Advocates and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. And in a one-page letter submitted to the BOP Tuesday, ADF said, “ADF concurs with the vast majority of comments submitted by the American Civil Liberties Union today — a somewhat remarkable statement given that we often do not agree with the ACLU.”

See that — even supposed enemies can find ways to be friends.

In 2007, BOP officials started purging prison chapel libraries of material that was not on a list of “acceptable” publications that the libraries could maintain. Among those titles banned at the time were Maimonides’ Code of Jewish Law and The Purpose Driven Life by the Rev. Rick Warren, who recently delivered the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration.

The revelation sparked harsh criticism from lawmakers and religious leaders across a broad ideological spectrum, and prompted Congress to include a provision in the Second Chance Act restricting the BOP’s ability to censor religious publications. The act allows BOP to restrict only those materials “that seek to incite, promote or otherwise suggest the commission of violence or criminal activity” or “any other materials prohibited by any other law or regulation.” The act explicitly forbids any further attempt “by whatever designation that seeks to…restrict prisoners’ access to reading materials, audiotapes, videotapes or any other materials made available in a chapel library.”

BOP’s proposed regulation restricts prisoners’ access to materials in defiance of the law. The watered-down standard in the proposed rule would allow any book to be banned if it is determined that it “could…suggest” violence or criminal activity, regardless of whether there is any intent to cause violence or even a reasonable possibility that violence will result. Works such as the Bible, the Qur’an and Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” could be left vulnerable because, theoretically, they could suggest violence or criminal activity to a reader.

Clearly, it is not the role of a governmental agency to dictate what is religiously acceptable — and that is something that we can all agree on.

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