No easy answers

EasyTShirtNavigating the First Amendment's establishment and free exercise clauses when developing policies for government chaplains can be dizzying. The Washington State Department of Corrections found that out recently when trying to reach a settlement with an inmate who wanted the right to adhere to two religions at the same time. Tacoma News-Tribune reporter Ian Demsky wrote up a thorough and interesting description of the problem:

Tom Suss loves his job. A chaplain at McNeil Island prison, he's been with the state Department of Corrections for more than 15 years. "It's really a privilege to work there," the 63-year-old Catholic priest said in a recent interview.

"When there's the opportunity to facilitate someone's realization of living differently, of making better choices, there's just no better high than that."

But Suss took a voluntary leave of absence at the beginning of the year because a new Corrections Department policy allowing inmates to profess multiple religions has put his faith into conflict with his duties as a state employee.

Suss is taking six weeks off and he's not sure what to do after that. He figures his days as a state chaplain are over. The state is attempting to protect inmates' freedom of religion and Suss' attempt to keep his religious convictions uncompromised may be futile:

What does it mean to belong to a particular faith or tradition? Can you just say, "OK, I'm Jewish now" (or Hindu, or Catholic, or Buddhist, or whatever), or must you be accepted into that faith through certain sacraments and rituals? Is it meaningful to claim you're both a Catholic, believing in one triune God, and at the same time a pagan, espousing the existence of many gods and goddesses? Who should get to decide?

Demsky explains that prisoners who claimed multiple religions used to have to get permission from each religion that dual membership was even permissible. In December, the rules were changed to allow inmates to claim multiple religions without any barrier. The policy revision was the result of a lawsuit settlement with an inmate who claimed that the state was violating federal law by preventing him from worshiping both as a Seventh-day Adventist and a Native American practitioner:

Not long after, Suss said, an inmate at McNeil Island decided to become both Catholic and Asatru, a movement harkening back to the pre-Christian paganism of Europe and Scandinavia.

For the priest, this presented a dilemma.

"Common sense says you cannot be a pagan Christian," he said. "As a state chaplain, I must endorse state policy. I have to be willing to endorse this inmate's freedom to be both religions at the same time, but my own convictions being a Catholic priest don't allow for a Catholic to be a pagan at the same time."

When writing about church and state issues, any angle you take can heavily influence how the issue is understood by the reader. Demsky did a great job of handling the incentives prisoners might have to take advantage of the policy:

PrisonCell

Carrell also is concerned that inmates will chose to be members of multiple religions - or even all religions - out of a desire to exploit the system, rather than from sincere conviction. For example, an inmate could profess to be Muslim to get a prayer rug to decorate his cell, or Jewish to have access to Kosher meals.

"I don't know how somebody can be a pagan and a Catholic," Carrell said. "That's like being partly pregnant."

Gary Friedman, who heads up a committee that advises the Corrections Department on religious matters, agrees. Other chaplains also have expressed concerns with the policy, he said.

"The policy change might seem like something minor to a lay person, but in prison, little things become big things," said Friedman, who is Jewish and trained as a chaplain.

"How can they be sincere if they don't follow the dictates of the faith they claim to have a sincere belief in?" Friedman asked. "How can they say they're Jewish, knowing one can't self-convert under Jewish law?"

He's seen inmates convert to Judaism and then contact Jewish organizations seeking money.

Demsky goes to a lawyer with the Becket Fund, a Washington, D.C., law firm that defends religious expression, to get the perspective that freedom of religion is worth the risk.

The article quotes Suss saying that he could be sued for not catering to the pagan inmate who also claims Catholicism and also that it's ridiculous that an inmate can be something in prison that he can't be outside -- but Demsky also explains how the new policy complies with current interpretations of the free exercise clause:

[Dick Morgan, assistant deputy secretary for the Corrections Department's prisons division] pointed out that the department's policy doesn't require anyone to perform ecclesiastical duties that run contrary to the tenets of their religion. A Catholic priest, for example, would not have to give communion to an inmate who had not been baptized, thus violating Catholic tradition.

Suss' dilemma, however, is that he is not only a Catholic priest, but also a state employee with nonreligious duties that might conflict with his religious beliefs.

There are many complex questions and kudos to Demsky for taking the time to explore multiple avenues and areas where consciences conflict. Too many times reporters covering these issues aggressively push an agenda rather than tell the story.

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