State Prison Officials Prevent Ordained Pentecostal Minister From Preaching
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TRENTON, NJ – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of New Jersey today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a New Jersey prisoner, an ordained Pentecostal minister, who is asking the state to respect his religious freedom by restoring his right to preach.
Howard Thompson, Jr. had preached at weekly worship services at the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) for more than a decade when prison officials last year issued, without any reason, a blanket ban on all preaching by inmates, even when done under the direct supervision of prison staff.
"Prisoners do not forfeit their fundamental right to religious liberty at the prison gate," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The prison's absolute ban on inmate preaching clearly violates the law and Mr. Thompson's right to practice his faith."
Since he entered NJSP in 1986, Thompson has been an active member of the prison's Christian community, participating in and preaching at Sunday services and other religious events, teaching Bible study classes and founding the choir. His preaching has never caused any security incidents, and the prison's chaplaincy staff has actively supported Thompson and encouraged him to spread his deeply held message of faith.
But in June 2007, prison officials banned all prisoners from engaging in preaching of any kind, without any warning or justification – which they still have not given.
"I have a religious calling to minister to my fellow inmates, and I've done so honestly, effectively and without incident for years," said Thompson. "All I want is to have my religious liberty restored and to be able to continue working with men who want to renew their lives through the study and practice of their faith."
According to the lawsuit, which names NJSP Administrator Michelle R. Ricci and New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner George W. Hayman as defendants, Thompson first preached a service at NJSP over a decade ago, when he relieved the former Protestant chaplain who had been unable to lead a scheduled service due to illness.
During the next decade, before he was ordained as a Pentecostal minister, Thompson periodically preached at Sunday services, taught Bible study classes and participated in and led the prison choir he founded. During these years, Thompson received his call to ordained ministry and to preaching and leading others in worship, study, and prayer.
Thompson, ordained in October 2000 during a service at NJSP overseen by the prison's chaplain, sincerely believes it is his religious calling and obligation to preach his Pentecostal faith and is willing to do so under the full supervision of NJSP staff.
"Ours is a country where people are free to express their religious viewpoints without having to fear repercussions," said Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "The New Jersey State Prison may not deny its prisoners their most basic constitutional rights."
This lawsuit is the latest in a long line of ACLU cases defending the fundamental right to religious exercise, a complete list of which is available online at: www.aclu.org/defendingreligion
In 2007, the ACLU of Rhode Island prevailed in a lawsuit challenging a similar restriction on prisoner preaching, successfully overturning a statewide ban and restoring the plaintiff prisoner's right to preach during weekly Christian services.
A copy of today's complaint is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison/restrict/37953lgl20081120.html
A copy of the preliminary injunction brief is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison/restrict/37954lgl20081203.html
Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available on line at: www.aclu.org/religion
Additional information about the ACLU of New Jersey is available online at: www.aclu-nj.org