Prison purge of religious books

The Bureau of Prisons has overreached by purging chapel libraries to guard against radical Muslims.

Earlier this year, chaplains in federal prisons removed thousands of religious materials from federal prison libraries nationwide. Perhaps this government-ordered purge won't cause concern outside of prisons, because it affects only convicts, and because it's to fight terrorism. But it should.

It matters enough for two prisoners at the Federal Prison Camp in Otisville, N.Y., who sued the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) over its new screening policy for religious books, tapes, CDs, and videos. The inmates, an Orthodox Jew and a Protestant Christian, claim the policy violates their religious rights and legal access to information.

While the class-action suit will further help define prisoner religious rights, it may also test judicial commitment to religious liberty in the war on Islamic terror.

The issue is not whether prison literature is censored, but the degree to which it is. US law and the Constitution allow government to restrict religious freedom in prisons as long as it has a compelling interest and uses the "least restrictive means" to pursue its interest. Making sure prisons don't become recruiting grounds for terrorists certainly is a compelling interest.

But the BOP has overreached.

Before this summer, screening was done by BOP chaplains. They culled material sent to the libraries and pulled mostly hate literature – a lot of it white supremacist citing a Christian basis – that could endanger prison security.

The new policy instead uses religious experts to select a list of approved materials. The list is long, allowing up to 450 titles for each of 20 religions or religious groupings, and will be periodically updated. But many titles that the BOP admits "may be very worthwhile" aren't on the list and were removed from chapel libraries.

In the Otisville prison, according to the suit, hundreds of books were taken from shelves, including such "fundamental" works as Maimonides' Code of Jewish Law, as well as the Christian bestseller, "The Purpose-Driven Life." The Muslim collection, small to begin with, amounts to the Koran and two other titles.

The BOP's move stems from a 2004 Department of Justice inspector general review of religious services for Muslims in federal prisons. One recommendation was to take an inventory and rescreen chapel libraries. It also said the BOP should consider a central registry of appropriate titles to avoid duplicating review efforts.

But the BOP never conducted the inventory. A BOP spokeswoman says the list is the "most effective" way for selecting material that is "consistently available," provides "religiously reliable teachings," and does not discriminate or promote violence or radicalization.

This goes far beyond withholding obviously inappropriate materials for security reasons, as done by the chaplains, and instead defines what is religiously appropriate – a disturbing development, even in a prison context. As Gary Friedman, spokesman for the American Corectional Chaplains Association says: "Radicalization is in the mind of the beholder." Many Jews consider the New Testament hateful to them.

Religion plays a vital rehabilitative role for prisoners. The BOP has taken many other steps to better guard against Muslim violence, and could do more.

But it needn't take this one.

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