Give Me That Old-Time Religion–Or Else

In Pennsylvania, a priest faithfully ministered to death-row inmates year after year -- until a new warden ordered him to leave. In other prisons around the country, authorities restrict inmates' access to Bibles and Bible commentaries. Inmates are forbidden to wear yarmulkes, or limited to one religious program a week, forcing them to choose between Bible study and worship services. Does this sound like religious freedom to you? Or more like government actively interfering with religious rights, in violation of the Constitution? Sadly, attempts to scour public life of anything remotely resembling religious activity are increasing -- both inside and outside prison walls. When religious believers fight back against such violations of religious freedoms, we're immediately accused of trying to impose theocracy on America. Nonsense. A theocrat wants to force everyone to believe in his own god and follow that god's rules. Christians are doing the opposite: trying to protect the right of citizens of all faiths to worship as they see fit. Why do militant secularists attempt to snuff out religious practice, even in prisons, where it is so desperately needed? Partly, it's a fanatical hostility toward religion. But these efforts also reflect a serious misunderstanding both of the role religion should play in public life and of religion's social benefits. First, we don't enjoy religious freedom because the courts allow it. The founders secured this basic human right in the Constitution because, as the Declaration of Independence recognizes, the right to worship is given by God, not government. Second, religion provides demonstrable social benefits. For example, Dr. Byron Johnson of the University of Pennsylvania studied graduates of Prison Fellowship's InnerChange Freedom Initiative program for two years following their release. He found that they had a recidivism rate of only 8 percent compared to more than 20 percent for similar inmates and 67 percent nationally. This is great news to anyone but a secularist ideologue. Even while this study was underway, Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued the state of Iowa, claiming the program violates church-state separation. What's galling is that they not only would destroy the religious rights of prisoners, but they would also deny society the advantage of changed lives: that is, fewer crimes. The abuse of prisoners' religious liberties is why Prison Fellowship supports the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), signed into law in 2000. The law promptly came under attack, and the Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in a case that will determine whether prisoners' access to religious materials and programs can be protected by congressional action. On this Sunday, Religious Freedom Day, get your church and your friends to join in praying that the Court will uphold this statute. The religious liberty of prisoners must be protected; nowhere do the lost need the Gospel more. America's founders wisely made religious freedom the first right; they knew that without it, all other rights are meaningless. Two centuries later, the prisoner sitting in his lonely cell, stripped of his Bible, his minister, and his right to worship, knows exactly what they meant.


Chuck Colson


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