ACLU Sues Over Inmate's Right to Preach

December 4, 2008

Author: Jeff Diamant

Source: Religion News Service

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit on behalf of a New Jersey prison inmate who was ordained behind bars eight years ago and now contends his religious freedoms were violated when prison officials forbade him from preaching.

Howard N. Thompson Jr., convicted of murder in 1985 and sentenced to 30 years to life in prison, was ordained as a Pentecostal minister in 2000 and preached regularly for other prisoners for years before corrections officials prohibited preaching by inmates in June 2007.

Edward Barocus, legal director of the ACLU in New Jersey, said the ban is unnecessary and that preaching is an essential part of Thompson's Pentecostal Christian faith.

"A number of religions have active preaching as a requirement," Barocus said. "It's not for the state to determine what is or what is not part of the religion. ... The right to religious freedom and freedom of speech does not extinguish at the cell block gate."

The suit names two defendants: Michelle Ricci, administrator of New Jersey State Prison, a maximum-security facility in Trenton, and George Hayman, commissioner of the state Department of Corrections. A spokeswoman for the DOC said Wednesday (Dec. 3) the agency would have no comment.

The suit contends the ban has no practical purpose for prison management and violates Thompson's religious rights under both the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. It also contends Thompson's past preaching has never caused problems for prison officials.