January 12, 2006
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
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
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
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
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.