FFRF demands that Ark. sheriff’s office end prisoner baptisms

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is telling the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office to immediately stop promoting religion and explicitly affiliating itself with Christianity.

FFRF has been alerted that the Sheriff’s Office recently hosted a baptism for inmates in partnership with Kibler Baptist Church. It then promoted the government-sponsored religious activity and its preference for Christianity on Facebook, celebrating how “38 incarcerated men and women accepted Jesus Christ behind bars.” The official post included the following bible verse:

Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in the newness of life. — Romans 6:4

It is a basic tenet of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government is prohibited from taking action that advances, shows preference for or coerces individuals to participate in religion, FFRF emphasizes.

“While the Sheriff’s Office may permissibly accommodate the free exercise rights of its inmates by providing opportunities for religious worship, Crawford County and its employees may not organize, promote or participate in religious events and activities, or promote religion on its social media pages,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Sheriff Daniel Perry.

Citizens interact with and rely on law enforcement officers during some of the most urgent and vulnerable times of their lives. The sheriff therefore serves a diverse population that consists of not only Christians, but also minority religious and nonreligious citizens. The department’s promotion of Christianity sends a message excluding the 37 percent of Americans who are non-Christian, including nearly one in three Americans who are nonreligious.

Sheriff Perry is charged with great responsibility and has been given significant trust by citizens in the community, including those who do not share his religious viewpoint. The responsibility is heightened when dealing with incarcerated people that he has been entrusted to oversee. By organizing and promoting a baptism intended to convert people to Christianity, and celebrating those conversions on official social media, the Sheriff’s Office indicates that it, and by extension the government of Crawford County, prefers Christianity over all other religions and religion over nonreligion.

It is obvious that the Office’s motive in planning and promoting inmate baptisms is not simply to accommodate inmates but to advance Christianity and coerce inmates and the broader Crawford County community to adhere to the tenets of Christianity. Any inmate aware of the Sheriff’s Office’s official support for, and celebration of inmates participating in, religious programs will not feel free to decline to participate. The government cannot legally itself host sectarian religious events in its facility or promote them in its official capacity. Nor can it use a county jail, with a literal captive audience, to proselytize and convert inmates to Christianity.

In order to avoid further Establishment Clause violations, as well as to protect the rights of the inmates and general public, the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office must refrain in future from coordinating religious programs and events as well as promoting religion over its social media. FFRF has additionally submitted an open records request to the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office for records and communications relating to the organization, participation and advertising of inmate baptisms.

“This is one of the more serious and offensive First Amendment violations we have encountered in a sheriff’s office,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The proselytization of a captive audience of inmates needs to stop immediately.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including hundreds of members and a chapter in Arkansas. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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