Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: Government actions on religious freedom law must be watched closely

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Charles W. Colson, former special counsel to Richard Nixon, served a prison term for his role in the Watergate scandal. He now heads Prison Fellowship International, an evangelical Christian ministry to the imprisoned and their families. Contact Colson via e-mail at 71421.1551(at)

UNDATED _ Because very few Americans ingest peyote as part of their religious observance, interest in the Supreme Court’s upcoming review of the constitutionality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) ranges between negligible and non-existent.

Yet, a fundamental issue is at stake. We should closely watch not only the High Court, but Congress as well, because the latter is threatening to weaken the act.

If either the Supreme Court or Congress jettisons or weakens RFRA, it will have served notice that the government will now decide which religions are acceptable and which are not. That would spell disaster not only for religious freedom but would endanger all other freedoms as well.

This controversy began after a member of the Native American Church, which uses the consciousness-altering peyote cactus in its religious ritual, was fired from his job and then denied unemployment compensation by the state of Oregon because he had broken drug laws. He appealed to the courts, saying peyote use is a legitimate part of his religion.

In the case, known as Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the justices ruled that any law serving a”rational”governmental purpose is constitutional, even if it infringes on religious freedom.

The ensuing uproar brought together groups as disparate as Prison Fellowship, which I chair, the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way and the National Association of Evangelicals to back legislation modifying the court action.

The result was RFRA, which restores what before the Smith case was the constitutional test: That a”compelling governmental interest”must be at stake before a government acts to restrict religious expression.

The law enjoyed overwhelming congressional support and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

Yet opponents continue to argue that this legislation, in effect, gives Americans _ especially prisoners _ too much religious freedom. They charge that prisoners have used RFRA to skirt prison security regulations.

Not only is there a challenge in the courts, but Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is attempting to pass an amendment to RFRA that would exempt prisoners from the act’s protections.

I have some experience in this area and while it is true the act protects some abnormal religious practices, the larger fact is this: We need more religious freedom in prison, not less. Even with RFRA it is often difficult to minister to inmates.

In Maryland, for example, those who register as Roman Catholic cannot attend a Protestant service or meeting, and vice versa. A Jew wishing to learn about Catholicism or Islam is forbidden to attend a meeting of these groups although designations can be switched once every six months.

This is not altogether different from the arrangement in France, where I am forbidden to so much as speak the name of God to an inmate unless the inmate has given me permission, in writing, to broach the subject. One can enter a prison and talk about any other subject, but talking about God requires a form.

Our nihilist friends will say”all the better,”but the contrary is true.

A Rutgers University study of 769 inmates and corrections employees found that religious opportunities”make life more livable”for both inmates and prison officials. That no doubt brings little comfort to those who believe prison should be unbearable, but is there some higher purpose in torturing prisoners, many of whom will eventually leave jail?

Of course not. Who would you rather meet on a dark street while changing a tire: an inmate who had undergone a religious conversion, or one whose attitude had hardened since his first arrest?

Religion really does change prisoners’ lives. A study commissioned by Prison Fellowship with 201 former prisoners found that among those who only experienced one of our programs, the recidivism rate was nearly equal to prisoners who did not (36 percent as opposed to 37 percent).

But among those prisoners who attended 10 or more Bible study programs, the rate dropped to 14 percent. Similarly, the recidivism rate for inmates in Brazil’s Humaita Prison who have been through the Prison Fellowship Program is an astounding 4 percent, while the overall rate for the prison system is 75 percent.

As one who has little use for the small band of those witches and warlocks whose religious practices are out of the ordinary, I nevertheless would rather protect their rights than deny all inmates what Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., calls”the only moral structure that permeates prison cells.” And if we allow a lockdown on religious liberty, government will be emboldened to whittle away at other freedoms. Life on the outside would become uncomfortably similar to life on the inside _ a cauldron most of us would like to avoid.