Religious social services are critical to America’s inmates

Written by William C. Duncan

September 11, 2020

Separated from her four children while in prison in the 1990s, Deborah Daniels feared especially for her daughter, who seemed to be headed down a dangerous path. With few options for exercising an influence, she turned to a Christian ministry. This allowed her to select gifts for her children to be delivered at Christmastime and helped to make a crucial connection – her children would be offered year-round care from a sponsoring church.

After her release in 1997, Daniels went to work for this same ministry.

In March 2020, a United Nations “special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief” asserted in a report that “the right to freedom of religion protects individuals and not religions as such.”

This statement is similar to other arguments that the entire scope of religious freedom is a right to worship, meaning to hold religious beliefs internally (or perhaps within sanctuary walls), but that legal protections should not apply to just actual practice.

These assertions are hard to square with the text of the First Amendment, which protects religious exercise and prohibits the government from establishing one church in preference to others. This argument is also contrary to the express language of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (emphasis added).

The limited “right to worship” stance is also problematic for those who care about preserving and promoting a decent, safe and just society. Religious individuals are limited in what they can do by themselves, but joined with others of their faith, they can and do provide critical assistance to vulnerable and marginalized people.

For example, religious outreach to prisoners. Prisoners are surely among the most – or perhaps the most – marginalized population in society. What other adult group in America today is typically denied by law the right to vote?

Religious outreach includes what some would automatically think of – providing religious materials or pastoral counseling. This obviously includes ministries that provide religious materials or pastoral counseling, but the range of services provided by religious prison ministries or other faith-based organizations is much broader.

The nation’s largest religious ministry is Prison Fellowship (PF). Founded by Chuck Colson after his release from prison for Watergate-related crimes, PF provides Bible study groups and similar services in hundreds of prisons, but it also facilitates Christmas gift-giving by prisoners to their families, provides resources to support successful reentry into society after incarceration, and advocates for criminal justice reform on topics like driver license suspension, fines and fees for those accused of crimes, and mandatory sentencing.

An entry in The Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment on “Religion in Corrections” notes that religious volunteers may become increasingly important to provide resources the government can’t provide: “As prisons become more crowded and job requirements becom[e] more complex, correctional officers and other staff will surely turn to religious leaders and volunteers to help them deal with the psychological stress of working in prison.”

Similarly, an Urban Institute report for the Department of Justice noted that with 700,000 inmates being “released each year from prisons … [r]esource-strapped policymakers and criminal justice practitioners are increasingly turning to the faith community to help meet the multiple needs of returning prisoners.”

In Utah, volunteers motivated by their faith record inmates reading stories to their children at home, facilitate inmate participation in community service, teach family history research, and provide mentors for prisoners transitioning to parole. The director of the Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square teaches music classes himself in the Utah State Prison.

In 1977, PF founder Colson said:

In Matthew 25, Jesus says ‘I was in prison, and you visited me.’ He calls upon His followers to minister to those who are behind bars. In other words, we will be judged in part by the way we treat those who are in prison. The fact that a man has committed a crime, and is paying the price, does not mean that he forfeits his God-given dignity.

This is why religious social services are so critical. People of faith are motivated by a sense of accountability to God and others that cannot be duplicated or replaced by payment of taxes to support government supported services, as essential as they are.

If we fail to offer legal protection to the efforts of churches and faith-motivated individuals to offer material and spiritual assistance to those willing to accept it, we are really harming the most vulnerable people in society – like the children of Deborah Daniels.

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