Prison Preacher Back in Pulpit After ACLU Suit

8 years ago

Late last month, an ordained Pentecostal preacher and prison inmate regained the right to preach and teach Bible study classes as a result of lawsuit settlement brokered by the American Civil Liberties Union. The settlement with the New Jersey Attorney General rescinds a 2007 ban on preaching in the New Jersey State Prison and gives Howard N. Thompson, Jr. permission to conduct religious services under the supervision of the prison chaplain or his designate. 

According to news reports, Thompson was convicted of murder in 1985 is serving a 30-year sentence. He became an ordained minister in 2000, and had been conducting worship services in the prison for several years when the preaching ban was instituted in 2007.

A press release issued by the ACLU's New Jersey office quotes Thompson thusly:

"The ban prevented me from responding to my religious calling to minister to my fellow inmates, something I had done honestly, effectively and without any incident for years," said Thompson. "All I have ever wanted was to have my religious rights restored so that I could continue working with men who want to renew their lives through the study and practice of their faith."

At NJ.com, where I first saw this story posted, a number of commenters were angry about the settlement, arguing that prisoners shouldn't have any rights. And more than one commenter posted angry messages about about the ACLU for upholding an inmates' rights. 

A statement on the ACLU's website responds to what the organization says are common misunderstandings about the organization's attitude toward religion:

The ACLU vigorously defends the right of all Americans to practice religion. But because the ACLU is often better known for its work preventing the government from promoting and funding selected religious activities, it is often wrongly assumed that the ACLU does not zealously defend the rights of all religious believers to practice their faith. The actions described below – over half of which were brought on behalf of self-identified Christians, with the remaining cases defending the rights of a wide range of minority faiths – reveal just how mistaken such assumptions are.  

Blogher CE Nordette Adams isn't so sure that prison inmates should have the right to preach. [Actually, I got that wrong. Please see her comment below.] In a post reflecting upon another ACLU religous freedom case involving Death Row inmates in Angola, La she wrote:

When I heard about the ACLU/Angola lawsuit, I considered that convicts don't necessarily get to keep all their freedoms. For instance, felons lose the right to vote. Is the right to religion a freedom kept by inmates?

As I noted below, I had a hard time finding people who have written about this or other ACLU cases in defense of Christians' rights to practice their faith, or express their religious ideas. However, I had no trouble finding blog posts and articles accusing the ACLU of being anti-Christian. (This .pdf from the Traditional Values Coalition is one example.) Another is this 2009 press release accusing the ACLU of trying to "make public schools religion-free zones." (By the way, ACLU recently filed suit on behalf of Florida students who had been told by officials at their school that they could not wear a T-shirt declaring, "Islam is of the devil" on the back and "Jesus answered, "I am the way, the truth and the life" on the front.)

Here's a recent post from Right-Wing Chick quoting a missive from backers of a campaign to send Christmas cards to send ACLU who say that the organization is "suing the US Government to take God, Christmas, or anything Christian away from us." And here's another from Lindylou, who describes herself as committed to the "Biblical standard," -- "sanctity of life, marriage as one man and one woman and freedom of speech and religious expression in public life." Lindylou insists that, "The ACLU is not about being committed to equal protection under the law for all people." In particular she says, they aren't committed to the rights of people with "beliefs similar to mine."

I'm very interested in how others feel about the ACLU's role in these and other cases related to freedom of religious belief. Any thoughts?

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