Atheists Say Program Letting Prisoners Leave Jail to Go to Church Is Illegal September 2, 2017

Atheists Say Program Letting Prisoners Leave Jail to Go to Church Is Illegal

The Maury County jail in Tennessee has a bizarre program to help prisoners get adjusted to life back in the outside world: They’re allowed to leave prison in casual clothing with no armed supervision… to go to church. The only person with them is a “spiritual mentor.”


Inmates are checked out by spiritual mentors who have been vetted through our jail chaplain and have been volunteers in our facility as mentors or program leaders and has completed TCI training for volunteers,” [Maury County Sheriff Bucky] Rowland said.

The churches aren’t told that prisoners are in the congregation. Rowland doesn’t see that as a problem, though: “They are going to church with sinners.” So what’s one more, right?

The “Church Work Release” program — it’s unclear what “work” is being done — began in December of last year and it has already created problems. One prisoner was “caught smuggling drugs and tobacco” back into the jail. That, however, appears to be the only stain on the program. Rowland says that prisoners must be near the end of their sentences (60 days from release) and have a clean disciplinary record to be allowed to go to an outside church. The program was temporarily suspended after the inmate brought back contraband, but it has since resumed.

And that’s why the Freedom From Religion Foundation is now getting involved.

In a letter from attorney Sam Grover, he commends the attempt at rehabilitation, but focuses on a different problem. By allowing prisoners to leave jail only to go to church, the Sheriff may be violating the Establishment Clause.

We write to ensure the Maury County Sheriff’s Department implements programs that are designed for, and equally accessible to, all qualified inmates, regardless of whether they are religious or nonreligious.

A public sheriff’s office cannot promote religion or religious worship events to the inmates in its care.

The program is illegal because it ties a substantial and desirable benefit — the opportunity to experience life outside the jail and spend time in civilian clothing — to an exclusively religious act: engaging in religious worship at a church.

… Prisoners’ religious beliefs or lack thereof should not influence their eligibility or standing to participate in any government-run program. We ask that the Sheriff’s Department end its Church Work Release program and seek religiously neutral ways to advance its rehabilitation efforts.

It’s a fair point. Atheists in this prison don’t have a way to participate no matter how unblemished their records in jail may be. It’s not like they’re allowed to attend a Sunday Assembly or go to a public library for their good behavior.

If the sheriff wants to keep this program going, he needs to include an alternative for people who aren’t religious or find another place for everyone to go.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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