Truth to Power: Norman Rose

By Norman Rose


Norman Rose

Hiding behind the secular cause of prison rehabilitation, religious zealots are now receiving millions of tax dollars to promote their world view. Their faulty claims are being backed by fraudulent research.

On August 12, 2003, I made an executive decision that ruined my ten-year tenure as a warden in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. On that day, I made rounds through my institution’s merit dormitory. Merit-status inmates were given privileges in exchange for keeping themselves busy working on their rehabilitation plans. That day, I found many merit-status inmates idly sitting around. I then instructed them to watch the Promise Keepe#rs Prison Conference, which was taking place in an Ohio prison and was broadcast on all prison televisions in Ohio and elsewhere.

Upon returning to my office, I received a telephone call from the unit manager, who informed me that inmates were upset because I ordered them to watch a religious program.

“Promise Keepers is about family values,” I stated. “It’s about keeping your promises to your spouse.”

“That is true,” came the reply, “but it is in a Christian context.”

I then rescinded the order for the inmates to watch the program. However, I felt perfectly okay with making the error, given the program’s ambiguous name, and the fact that the state agency I worked for sponsored, funded, promoted, and endorsed Promise Keepers.

Unbeknown to me, t#he Department’s director had just received letters from two organizations, the American Jewish Congress and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, threatening legal action if the director did not cancel the Promise Keepers Prison Conference.

They pointed out that government sponsorship of religion is illegal. When the director heard that I ordered inmates to watch Promise Keepers, he demoted me to Deputy Warden. Public statements were then issued indicating that the director had curbed my illegal promotion of religion in prison!

At the beginning of my 23 years of working in Ohio prisons, I was amused that the state engaged in the practice of leading employees in prayer during various secular events. Eventually what started out as nondescript prayers at some banquets evolved into explicitly Christian prayers, music, and proselytizing by high-ranking Department officials at wide-ranging award ceremonies and training programs for both inmates and staff. Agency support for religion went so far that employees were sent to Christian churches for government training sessions. The Department even made religious faith a cornerstone of its highly regarded innovative inmate rehabilitation program.

I was no longer amused. After the years of mental anguish I’d endured to finally admit to myself the truth–that there is no god–I was not about to take a bullet for the director over his illegal promotion of religion in the government agency he managed.

I demanded a hearing over my demotion. This did not go over well in state agency world.

At my “hearing,” the director himself served as the hearing officer. He found me guilty of improperly ordering inmates to watch a religious show#, and of three additional charges that were not pending prior to my disloyal act of talking back.

Wardens in Ohio have no recourse for disputing false charges. There is no appeal process. I did write the governor, but his office did not respond. The ACLU did not want my case, because it was vulnerable to the argument that I illegally ordered inmates to watch a religious program. Being short on money and big on individualism, I decided to represent myself in court pro se.

As the saying goes, I had a fool for a client. I quickly became overwhelmed over issues of jurisdiction, due process, and procedure. Several lawyers gave me advice, but they would not go too far because I would not pay them, or because they did not want to appear to be practicing law in a state where they were not licensed. Mostly, they pointed me to the books and cases I needed to read. I immersed myself into the study of constitutional law, civil procedure, evidence#, and 42 U.S.C. 1983 litigation.

Right off the bat I was unable to determine whether to file my case in state or federal court. To cover the bases, I filed in both. My claim was that my career was harmed as a proximate cause of the director’s violation of the U.S. Constitution (illegally using a government agency to promote religion), and that I was found guilty and demoted as the result of a hearing that lacked due process (an impartial judge).

The defendants immediately filed for dismissal in both courts on the grounds that I could not file the same lawsuit in both state and federal courts. The short version of what happened next is that the federal judge decided to hear my arguments that the Department is illegally promoting religion, for injunctive relief only. The state judge would then adjudicate my efforts to restore my discredited name and litigate my claims to damages over my improper demotion.

First came the federal case. The defendants mov#ed for summary judgment on numerous procedural and substantive grounds. A lawyer told me that I would have to dispute each argument; even if they presented bad argument the judge will accept them unless I dispute them. I did my homework: The motion for summary judgment was denied.

The judge told us that the case would most likely go all the way to the Supreme Court. Especially sensitive is the issue of whether a government agency can lead employees in prayer. Legal arguments exist both ways, and although current law is in my favor, two new Bush-appointed judges might change the precedents. The judge asked if we would meet to discuss a settlement. Both sides agreed.

During the settlement conference, I presented my issues to the judge while three state attorneys made counter-arguments. The judge then wrote his opinion. When we were all done, the judge presented us with what he had written down and stated that if both sides did not agree to it, a trial date would #be set. I was pleased, but my disappointed opponents had to get approval from the Department’s new director and the state’s Attorney General. Much to my satisfaction, the agreement was signed.

The major points of the settlement are:

1. The Department will not have prayer, religious music, or proselytizing at secular events, except for a memorial service, during which a nonsectarian prayer may be offered.

2. Faith-based programs will be identified as such, and prison inmates will not be required to attend them.

3. The Department will not sponsor or endorse the message of any religious group.

4. The Department will cease from holding employee training in churches unless there is no other suitable location.

5. The Department will not place religious endorsements on official documents or bulletin boards.

Success was achieved in part because the Department is managed by a new directo#r, but mostly because of the work I personally put into it. I studied the legal arguments and I accumulated literally hundreds of documents including e-mails, programs, agendas, audiotapes, and videotapes to prove my facts. Most important, I amassed a plethora of witnesses to testify, many of them reluctantly, about the Department’s religious entanglement. I forced a settlement of what I believe is an appropriate model.

In spite of this achievement in Ohio, I still have great concerns about the emerging affiliation between religion and prisons. A nationwide movement, spearheaded in part by Ohio’s prison system, is featuring a new approach to prisoner rehabilitation. Part of this new paradigm justifies gover#nment funding of religious teachings as the solution to crime. Such funding is blatantly unconstitutional and based upon the ethnocentric notion that people of religious faith are less likely to commit crimes than are the godless.

Hiding behind the secular cause of prison rehabilitation, religious zealots are now receiving millions of tax dollars to promote their world view. Their faulty claims are being backed by fraudulent research.

Don’t get me wrong. I respect religious people. Most of them are religious because they desire to be good people. They have been fooled into believing that morality is associated with belief in a higher power. This false assertion can not go unchallenged by freethinkers.

Norman Rose spent his childhood in various locations including Virginia, Southeastern Kentucky, South Carolina, Mississippi, California, Nevada, and Ohio. His education includes a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Marietta College, a Master’s degree in applied sociology from Kent State University, and a Ph.D. in sociology from Ohio State University.

Rose’s professional career consists of 23 years of working in Ohio prisons, including ten years served as a warden. He was elected as President of both the Correctional Education Association of Ohio, and the Ohio Correctional and Court Services Association. He accrued 31 years ofe xperience teaching sociology and criminology as an adjunct instructor in various colleges and universities.

Rose plans to retire from corrections soon and pursue graduate studies in history and law.

The settlement conference during which the agreement in Rose v. Wilkinson was reached occurred at the United States District Court Northern District of Ohio on June 22, 2006. The order was finalized and signed by Judge Aaron Dan Polster on June 29, 2006.

Freedom From Religion Foundation