The Canadian government has said it will cancel the contracts of all part-time chaplains – one-fifth of whom are non-Christians – at federal prisons, and therefore full-time chaplains – all but one of whom are Christian – must provide services to inmates of all faiths.
The office of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is also responsible for Canada's penitentiaries, has told CBC News about its decision in an email message.
Toews says he is not convinced that taxpayer money should be used for part-time chaplains from other religions and he will therefore review the policy. Canada spends about $6.4 million a year on its prison chaplain program.
As of now, the country has about 80 full-time prison chaplains, all but one of whom are Christian. Of the roughly 100 part-time chaplains, about 20 are non-Christians.
So by the end of March 2013, the part-time non-Christian chaplains are likely to be let go, and the full-time chaplains in prisons will then have to provide interfaith services and counseling to all inmates, including Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews.
Of the nearly 23,000 inmates in federal custody in 2011, a large majority identified themselves as Christian, according to corrections data. About 4.5 percent said they were Muslim, and 4 percent said they belonged to First Nations spirituality, and 2 percent were Buddhist. Jews and Sikhs were less than 1 percent each.
"The minister strongly supports the freedom of religion for all Canadians, including prisoners," the email from Toews' office states. "However, the government … is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding. The minister has concluded … chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths."
However, non-Christian part-time chaplains criticized the Conservative government's move.
Rabbi Dina-Hasida Mercy called the cancellations "un-Canadian." "My first reaction is, 'What am I going to tell the guys that I see,'" she was quoted as saying. "These people are all going to be out on the street someday, and unless we do some work while they're in prison to help them become good citizens when they're on the outside, it's not going to happen."
Sikh chaplain Harkirat Singh added it will amount to discrimination. "How can a Christian chaplain provide spirituality to the Sikh faith, because they don't have that expertise."
However, Interfaith Committee on Chaplaincy's president Monique Marchand clarified that full-time chaplains will not directly give pastoral care to non-Christian inmates, but will just coordinate and seek the help of local clergy according to the faith of the inmates. The committee advises the correctional service on the spiritual care of inmates.