I’m conflicted about privileging religion in prison, because government should not privilege religion inside or outside of prison. However, I think most prisoners should receive more privileges than they now have, and a substantial number shouldn’t even be incarcerated, yet they sit in prison because of our cruel and ineffective War on Drugs.
The purposes of incarceration should be to protect the community, to act as a deterrent, and to rehabilitate — not for punishment or retribution. More than 60 percent of prison inmates are functionally illiterate, and it’s no secret that people who learn to read are more likely to become productive citizens and less likely to end up in jail.
Similarly, those who learn to read, learn a trade, and learn coping skills while in prison are less likely to return once they are free. Help in finding a job upon release cuts recidivism significantly, and reducing recidivism through rehabilitation is less costly, more humane, and safer for the community.
That said, government should never privilege one religion over another or religion over non-religion, either inside or outside of prison. Unfortunately, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has asserted that the Constitution permits courts to favor religion over non-religion.
Here are three recent court cases about religious privileging in prison.
1. A Muslim sues to grow a beard in prison.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether Muslim inmate Abdul Maalik Muhammad has the right to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his religion. Muhammad could legally grow such a beard in 43 states, but not in Arkansas, where he is imprisoned. If such prison beards don’t create a security hazard — and I don’t think there is evidence that they do — why shouldn’t prisoners be allowed to grow them? If beards are hazardous, Muslim prisoners should have no more right to create a hazard than non-Muslim prisoners.
2. A death row inmate sues to have kosher food in prison.
Convicted murderer and rapist Steven Hayes, an Orthodox Jew, is suing the state of Connecticut for violating his religious liberty by not serving him kosher meals in prison. Furthermore, he wants all Jews to have access to kosher meals in prison. But, kosher meals are more expensive, so should taxpayers give this special treatment to Jews? For one thing, it’s not always easy to determine who is a Jew, as I point out here. Rabbinic scholars argue about this, and prison officials shouldn’t have to decide.
When airlines serve meals on planes, they sometimes offer a kosher option. Nobody has to pass a religious test, and I occasionally choose kosher because it seems to be the best meal available. A Florida court decided to treat its prisoners more like airline passengers. It ruled that kosher meals must be offered to any inmate with a “sincerely held” religious belief — regardless of what that belief might be. Immediately after the announcement, 4,417 inmates requested and received kosher meals (four times as expensive).
3. An inmate sues for his religious liberty right to dress like a pirate in prison.
Of the three prisoners I’m writing about, Stephen Cavanaugh is the one whose religious beliefs are closest to mine. He is incarcerated by the state of Nebraska and is a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Adherents of this group claim that there is no more evidence for intelligent design than for a Flying Spaghetti Monster, so if intelligent design is to be given equal time with evolution in our public schools, the Flying Spaghetti Monster also deserves equal time. I agree. Cavanaugh says that the “religious clothing” he needs to wear in prison is full pirate regalia. A parody, perhaps, but it raises an interesting point.
What is a religion and who decides? Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said, “Pornography is hard to define, but I know it when I see it.” The same might be said of religion. I’ve heard religion defined as a sincerely held faith-based belief concerning the nature of the universe. But why should our government privilege sincerely held religious beliefs over any sincerely held scientific or philosophical belief?
If the government offers an exemption from a law because of religious belief, then that same exemption should be available for conscientious belief, just as the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a conscientious objector to war.
Many atheists and humanists, myself included, are applauding a recent court decision in the case of American Humanist Association v. United States that allows for the creation of a Humanist study group in prison, just as religious groups are allowed study groups. Atheists and humanists should enjoy the same legal rights as religious people, but this decision is a “mixed blessing” because it referred to secular humanism as a religion for Establishment Clause purposes.
I’m uncomfortable with the prerequisite of a religious designation in order to receive equal rights. I would much rather promote conscience than flying spaghetti monsters.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.