ACLU Sues for Prisoner's Right to Preach

Ad Feedback - The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a law suit on behalf of a New Jersey inmate, claiming his rights were violated when prison officials banned him from preaching.

Howard N. Thompson Jr., 44, an inmate at the New Jersey State Prison, is also an ordained Pentecostal minister. He had conducted weekly worship services until prison officials banned preaching by inmates in 2007.

According to the law suit, the Corrections Department imposed the ban without offering any explanation, arguing that it serves no practical purpose in the operation of the prison.

The suit further contends that the ban violates Thompson's rights under the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause and under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

"The right to practice one's faith, or no faith at all, is fundamental and applies inside and outside the prison gates," said Daniel Mach, director of litigation for the ACLU's religion program. "No officials should be in the business of restricting religious exercise."

New Jersey's ACLU Legal Director Edward Barocas says that preaching is an important part of Thompson's Pentecostal faith.

"A number of religions have active preaching as a requirement," Barocas said. "It's not for the state to determine what is or what is not part of the religion."

According to Barocas, Thompson is willing to agree to preach only under the supervision of prison staff. Barocas added that it is not fair to bar prisoners from preaching when they're permitted to carry out other duties.

"I have not heard of an outright ban like this in the other prisons in New Jersey," he said.

Thompson is serving 30 years to life for murder and robbery.

Sources: The Associated Press, New Jersey On-Line

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