Last February we looked at an intriguing First Amendment story in the Tacoma News Tribune. Reporter Ian Demsky looked at the fallout from a Washington State Department of Corrections settlement decision that gives inmates the right to adhere to two religions at the same time. One priest in particular took a voluntary leave of absence because he couldn't support the state decision. At the time, I praised the story as a thorough and interesting description of the problems posed by the decision. Some readers felt the story didn't dig deep enough. I'm out in the Pacific Northwest right now and noticed that Demsky revisited the issue this week on the occasion of the Rev. Tom Suss' last official day.
For more than 15 years, he served inmates of all faiths as prison chaplain. But the 63-year-old Catholic priest chose to retire a year and a half early rather than work with a troubled heart.
He's leaving because he disagrees with new rules that allow state inmates to simultaneously chose multiple religious affiliations with the flick of a pen.
The most recent figures available show that 39 inmates at McNeil had designated multiple religions as of Feb. 21, and officials say that number has gone up since. The combinations include Protestant/Catholic, Jewish Orthodox/Seventh-day Adventist, Buddhist/Protestant/Sikh, Asatru/Catholic.
The contradictions were too much for Suss.
"I'm not a martyr," Suss said in a recent interview. "There's no hidden message here. I met my Waterloo. I had no other choice. I could not accept a pagan/Catholic."
The article quotes the prison superintendent saying that Suss' departure will be a loss and that he had been a very good chaplain for all faiths. When we first discussed the article, reader Jason Pitzl-Waters said that Suss hadn't been a good chaplain to all religions. None of that is discussed in this story. Another complaint about the first story was that it didn't make clear that the new rules wouldn't compel Suss to commune anyone who claimed a religion in addition to Catholicism. This article does. It also covers new ground, showing that Suss is more upset that the greater religious community didn't challenge the rules as much as he did. That's a great angle to include in a story. Here Demsky includes the heart of Suss' complaint:
At the heart of Suss' quandary is whether an inmate should be able to simply choose a religion or whether one must be accepted by a community of faith.
Anyone not incarcerated is free to go down to the local Catholic shop and buy a rosary or a Bible, Suss said. That person can go to another shop and purchase amulets or crystals held sacred by pagans. But that doesn't make one a member of either group. To be accepted into a faith, one must go through rituals and be welcomed by the community, he feels.
"Only the membership process, as authorized by the legitimate tradition, can say whether someone's of that religion," Suss said. . . .
"God can't make a square circle," Suss said. "How do we think we can create a contradiction of terms and say it's OK? The DOC and the federal government don't have that authority."
Earlier in the story, Demsky mentions that some people see no contradiction in being part of multiple religions. But it would be nice to get a direct response to Suss' claim. Still, the story is about Suss and his last day more than the larger issue. Considering that, the arguments and tensions are fleshed out well.