ACLU of Rhode Island Files Appeal on Behalf of Christian Prisoner Barred from Preaching at Religious Services

January 12, 2006 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island announced today that it has filed an appeal in federal court on behalf of a Christian prisoner who was barred from preaching during religious services at the state prison.

Wesley Spratt had been preaching during Christian services for seven years at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) until 2003, when a new warden unilaterally stopped him from doing so based on vague and generalized "security" concerns. In its appeal, the ACLU argues that the preaching ban violates a federal law known as RLUIPA, which was designed to protect the religious freedom of institutionalized persons.

"RLUIPA is an important federal law that was designed to protect the religious freedom of people like Wesley Spratt," said ACLU cooperating attorney Carly Beauvais Iafrate. "That law is undermined if courts give uncritical deference to prison officials in denying inmates the right to practice their religion."

Spratt, who considers his preaching a "calling" from God, had been preaching at religious services on a weekly basis under the supervision, and with the support, of clergy at the ACI. The Department of Corrections provided no evidence of security problems during, or as the result of, his supervised preaching during the seven years he had been doing so. Nonetheless, when the new warden took over, Spratt was ordered to stop preaching.

In November, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacob Hagopian upheld the ban. Notwithstanding the lack of any security problems in the years Spratt had been preaching, Judge Hagopian ruled that he would "defer" to the warden's judgment that there was no means to accommodate Spratt's preaching while maintaining institutional security.

In taking over Spratt's appeal, the ACLU argued that prison officials failed to meet the standards of the federal religious freedom law by not protecting the exercise of religious beliefs by prisoners. The law bars states from imposing any substantial burden on an inmate's exercise of religion unless it furthers a compelling interest and is the least restrictive means available.

Regarding the "least restrictive means" standard, the ACLU brief notes that, unlike a ban, "supervised preaching that existed in an unremarkable way for seven years" was clearly the least restrictive means available to prison officials. The brief points out that supervised preaching is also the method used in federal prisons to accommodate inmates' exercise of religion.

The brief concludes that the magistrate improperly accepted the prison's "unsupported explanations for its sudden and unexplained change of position," and that the facts establish that "allowing Spratt to continue preaching, as he had for seven years, while supervised, satisfies security concerns and preserves his critical religious exercise."

The ACLU is seeking a court order to allow Spratt to resume preaching at religious services.

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