Prisoners have right to texts

The New York Times reported Sept. 10 that federal prison chaplains, acting under government orders, have been removing thousands of religious texts per penitentiary so only about 150 titles for each major religion will remain. These titles appear on an unreleased list of books approved by unnamed “experts.”The Bureau of Prisons, an agency of the Justice Department, wants, in light of the 9/11 attacks, to prevent prisoners from reading books that might advocate violence or radicalize.

On the one hand, prisons certainly have a right to maintain security; on the other, the Standardized Chapel Library Project invites biased selections by its mysterious experts.

In an editorial, Michael Gerson of The Washington Post pointed out the “very act of a government agency selecting the basic books of a religious tradition … is clearly beyond government’s legitimate powers.”

While choosing which books are basic to a religion should be considered a violation of the separation between church and state, some selection process by the government must occur since the government runs the prison libraries and has only so much physical space and financial resources for them.

Who then are the experts deciding which religious texts advocate violence or radicalize?

The New York Times article states “the identities of the bureau’s experts have not been made public, Ms. Billingsley said, but they include chaplains and scholars in seminaries and at the American Academy of Religion. Academy staff members said their organization had met with prison chaplains in the past but was not consulted on this effort, though it is possible that scholars who are academy members were involved.”

The American Academy of Religion is the world’s largest organization of those who “research or teach topics related to religion.” Even students can join the Academy. Ms. Billingsley’s reference to the group, which disclaimed official knowledge of the Standardized Chapel Library Project, remains unhelpful. That leaves us with “chaplains and scholars in seminaries.”

Prison chaplains probably have relevant expertise, but scholars in seminaries shouldn’t determine which religious books make the government’s “approved” list. A seminary largely exists to prepare its’ students for religious service of whatever sort – congregational leadership, choir directing and so on (in the faith the seminary endorses). In other words, seminaries as organizations advocate particular faiths.

In contrast, university religion departments, such as TCU’s, do not. Religion departments tend to advance a holistic study of religion not geared toward instilling a particular faith. While I don’t want to say seminary scholars as individuals cannot bring meaningful insight to this issue, the experts the government pick should come from more disinterested – though still knowledgeable – sources, in order to best maintain the separation between church and state.

Douglas Lucas is an English and philosophy major from Fort Worth.