The American Civil Liberties Union, backed by groups including Prison Fellowship and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, is demanding that officials at a regional corrections facility in Virginia end their illegal censoring of religious materials sent to detainees.
In a letter sent Thursday to the superintendent of the Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford, the ACLU asked for jail officials to guarantee in writing that the jail will no longer censor biblical passages from letters written to detainees and to revise the jail's written inmate mail policy to state that letters will not be censored simply because they contain religious material.
"It is nothing short of stunning that a jail would think it okay to censor the Bible and other religious material for no reason other than its religious nature," says David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. "Such censorship violates both the rights of detainees to practice religion freely and the free speech rights of those wanting to communicate with detainees."
According to the ACLU, the letter was prompted by a complaint brought to the ACLU by Anna Williams, a devout Christian whose son was detained at Rappahannock beginning in June of 2008 until his transfer earlier this year.
Williams wanted to send her son religious material, including passages from the Bible, to support him spiritually during his confinement. But rather than deliver Williams' letters to her son in full, jail officials reportedly removed any and all religious material, destroying the religious messages Williams sought to convey to her son.
In one incident, jail officials reduced a three-page letter sent by Williams to her son to nothing more than the salutation, the first paragraph of the letter and the closing, "Love, Mom," after excising biblical passages.
"It is essential that jail officials abide by the law and the requirements of the U.S. Constitution," argues Daniel Mach, director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "People do not lose their right to religious worship simply because they are incarcerated."
Other signatories to the ACLU's letter – addressed to the jail’s superintendent, Joseph Higgs, Jr. – include the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Rutherford Institute, Prison Fellowship, the Friends Committee on National Legislation and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Copies of the letter were also sent to a handful of city and county officials.