The Parade of Privilege: How Government Favors Religion (Privilege #7: Prisons)

Luis Granados, director of the AHA’s publishing house, Humanist Press, responds to the Catholic bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom, a 14-day campaign which, according to the Washington Post, “purports to champion religious freedom, but in actuality distorts it by promoting the use of religion as a license to discriminate.”

Religious Privilege #7: Prisons

The most ludicrous examples of government special privilege for religion can be found in our prisons, which are supposed to be places where ordinary freedoms are left at the door. Thanks to the efforts of Watergate jailbird Charles Colson, the same RLUIPA law that gives churches an unfair advantage in routine zoning matters also gives prisoners incredible power to ignore ordinary prison rules, just by claiming that God (or even the devil) said so.

Senators as diverse as Harry Reid and Strom Thurmond expressed misgivings about the change. Thurmond, not ordinarily considered a humanist here, sagely warned that “Inmates have used religion as a cover to organize prison uprisings, get drugs into prison, promote gang activity, and interfere in important prison health regulations. Additional legal protections will make it much harder for corrections officials to control these abuses of religious rights.” But, they voted for it anyway, because they didn’t want to offend the God experts.

Thurmond predicted exactly what has been happening ever since. Attorney Marci Hamilton points out in her book God vs. the Gavel, running a prison is a tough job, and it is critical for the inmates to perceive that the rules governing their conduct are simple and evenly applied. She then goes on to list, page after page, the types of special treatment under RLUIPA demanded and often received by prisoners, always with the threat of a costly federal court battle looming in the background:

  • Catholics demanding fish and unleavened bread during Lent, and wine every Sunday
  • Rastafarians demanding a diet of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, juices, and grains
  • Sikhs demanding unlimited hair and beard length
  • Protestants demanding to wear metal crosses, easily useable as weapons
  • Buddhists demanding tallow-free soap and hair conditioner
  • “Technicians of the Sacred” demanding worship in the nude
  • Aryan Nation demanding Aryan Nation sacred racist texts
  • Odinists demanding a sauna, cauldron, and Viking swords made of soft wood
  • Wiccans demanding Tarot cards and the right to cast spells and curses
  • Muslims demanding the right to refuse to be tested for tuberculosis
  • Baptists demanding better television programs
  • Christian separatists demanding the right to be separated from black inmates
  • Native Americans demanding a sweat lodge
  • Luciferians demanding the right to burn Bibles (which wound up causing smoke damage throughout the building)

Shoe bomber Richard Reid learned his Islam in prison because his career-criminal father advised him (correctly) that Muslims got easier treatment and better food. “Dirty bomb” conspirator Jose Padilla converted to Islam in prison as well. One expert estimates that 17-20% of America’s prisoners are now Muslims, and that 80% of all religious conversions inside prisons are conversions to Islam, many at the behest of “chaplains” paid by the Wahhabi government of Saudi Arabia. Way to go, Congress.

Visit the American Humanist Association’s Facebook page every day through July 4 where we counter the Catholic bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom by posting a special privilege experienced only by churches in the United States.