NYT: Library moral equivalency?

book chainsMaybe it's appropriate to write about this on the morning of Sept. 11. How different would things be today if the terrorist attacks of six years ago had never happened? On Monday Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times gave us a hugely important story about new policies that are limiting the religion books inmates in federal prisons can freely access from their facilities' libraries. According to Traci Billingsley, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman, the agency is responding to a Justice Department Inspector General's report that recommended actions in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to keep prisons from becoming recruiting grounds for Islamic militants. And other groups:

But prison chaplains, and groups that minister to prisoners, say that an administration that put stock in religion-based approaches to social problems has effectively blocked prisoners' access to religious and spiritual materials -- all in the name of preventing terrorism.

"It's swatting a fly with a sledgehammer," said Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, a Christian group. "There's no need to get rid of literally hundreds of thousands of books that are fine simply because you have a problem with an isolated book or piece of literature that presents extremism."

Good for the Times in quoting Earley, but was the organization's founder, Chuck Colson, unavailable for comment? With his close ties to the Bush administration, it would be interesting to know his thoughts. Obviously this is issue is several steps removed from the White House, but if I'm not mistaken each agency has a White House-designated official who reviews and approves all new agency regulations.

Instead of weeding out books that could be placed into this category, the prison agency talked to a bunch of unnamed people and put together a list of 300 books and multimedia resources comprising 20 religions or religious categories. The Times received a copy of the list from a source who doesn't like the project. The problem raised by a project like this is, of course, some books won't be on that list:

The lists are broad, but reveal eccentricities and omissions. There are nine titles by C. S. Lewis, for example, and none from the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Cardinal Avery Dulles, and the influential pastor Robert H. Schuller.

The identities of the bureau's experts have not been made public, Ms. Billingsley said, but they include chaplains and scholars in seminaries and at the American Academy of Religion. Academy staff members said their organization had met with prison chaplains in the past but was not consulted on this effort, though it is possible that scholars who are academy members were involved.

The bureau has not provided additional money to prisons to buy the books on the lists, so in some prisons, after the shelves were cleared of books not on the lists, few remained.

What's almost as interesting as the list are the book examples provided by the Times. I've complained about this before, by why in this era of the Internets can we not just publish the whole list on the Times site and provide a link? All we are given is a list of "http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2007/09/10/us/20070910_PRISON_CHART.html/">Some Excluded Works." It's a good thing the Times qualified that with "some," since there is no way to compile the list of all the excluded titles. It would be easier if the Times had just given us the list of approved books.

Nevertheless, the legal justification behind this policy sounds like something the government would try to put forward. The coming legal battle could end up being a defining case in determining the federal government's relationship with religion.

The Times quotes David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group:

Mr. Zwiebel asked, "Since when does the government, even with the assistance of chaplains, decide which are the most basic books in terms of religious study and practice?"

The lawsuit raises serious First Amendment concerns, said Douglas Laycock, a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, but he added that it was not a slam-dunk case.

"Government does have a legitimate interest to screen out things that tend to incite violence in prisons," Mr. Laycock said. "But once they say, 'We're going to pick 150 good books for your religion, and that's all you get,' the criteria has become more than just inciting violence. They're picking out what is accessible religious teaching for prisoners, and the government can't do that without a compelling justification. Here the justification is, the government is too busy to look at all the books, so they're going to make their own preferred list to save a little time, a little money."

Since this is a story about book lists -- a genuine news story about lists! -- we're given a few opinions on the thoroughness of the list, which is great. But wouldn't it be greater for us all to be able to chime in with what we think should be on the list? I'm sure a few of us would have an opinion or two:

Timothy Larsen, who holds the Carolyn and Fred McManis Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, an evangelical school, looked over lists for "Other Christian" and "General Spirituality."

"There are some well-chosen things in here," Professor Larsen said. "I'm particularly glad that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. If I was in prison I would want to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer." But he continued, "There's a lot about it that's weird." The lists "show a bias toward evangelical popularism and Calvinism," he said, and lacked materials from early church fathers, liberal theologians and major Protestant denominations.

The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame (who edited "The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism," which did make the list), said the Catholic list had some glaring omissions, few spiritual classics and many authors he had never heard of.

"I would be completely sympathetic with Catholic chaplains in federal prisons if they're complaining that this list is inhibiting," he said, "because I know they have useful books that are not on this list."

The next step for the journalist is to determine who was on the committee that put this list together. I certainly hope a Freedom of Information Act request has been filed.

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