ACLU, Religious Groups Question Jail Censorship

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It's not often that the American Civil Liberties Union and religious rights groups are on the same side, but they are working together in the case of a Virginia jail accused of censoring a mother's letter to her son that contained Bible verses.
 
At the Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford, Va., jail officials allegedly cut out Bible references from a letter a woman wrote to her son who is an inmate in the jail. On at least one occasion, all that was left of her three-page letter was the salutation, the first paragraph, and the words "Love, Mom."

Click here to see CBN News' interview with Eric Rassbach of Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty for his analysis on the Virginia jail's religious censorship.

Some of the Bible scriptures removed from the letter included passages from the books of Matthew, James, and Proverbs.

In addition to violating the rights of the inmate, an attorney for the American Center for Law and Justice said the jail's actions violate the rights of the mother who sent the letter.

"The mother was never notified that her letter was censored," Shannon Demos explained.  "For example, that's one requirement the Supreme Court has placed. If the jail is going to censor they need to provide that kind of notice so that the person can maybe seek review and find out exactly why it was censored and take steps to remedy it."

Demos said none of that seemed to have been done in this case. However, the case has brought together groups normally at odds over religious rights issues.

The ACLU and several other religious rights groups sent a letter to jail officials, calling its censorship policy illegal.

ACLU attorney David Shapiro said while jails can prevent prisoners from receiving material that creates a security threat, such action does not apply in this case.

"For example, escape plans, instructions on how to build weapons, things like that. And that's what the courts have said," Shapiro said. "But when we're talking about something like the Bible, there's no real reason to censor it."

CBN News tried to contact jail officials to get their response to the story, but our telephone calls were not returned.  Meanwhile, the jail's superintendent has launched an investigation into the matter. 

Jail is a place of punishment and a place to rehabilitate criminals. But some question how that can happen when the lock-up locks out the spiritual inspiration that could change an inmate's heart.

Steve Christianson serves as senior chaplain at the city jail in Virginia Beach, Va., and he is concerned this case might have an impact elsewhere.

"We're looking at the power of the word of God to convert souls to Christ," he said. "And so with something like that we're basically denying inmates the opportunity to change their lives. The repercussions on our society and our lives are just staggering and we're already seeing that in other areas of our culture."

Christianson and many like him believe the admission of Biblical materials in jails actually helps to make inmates and society better.

"When you have people converted to Christ they aren't violent anymore and their lives are totally changed," he added.

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Charlene  Aaron

Charlene Aaron

CBN News Reporter

Charlene Aaron serves as a general assignment reporter and helps anchor for the CBN News Channel.  Follow her on Twitter @CharNews and "like" her at Facebook.com/CharleneIsraelCBNNews.