An unlikely alliance of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian lawyers’ group that usually fiercely opposes the ACLU, along with several other groups, is contesting a proposed Bureau of Prisons rule that prohibits “materials that could incite, promote, or otherwise suggest the commission of violence or criminal activity” from being placed in prison chapel libraries. It would enable prison officials to remove from libraries books that they deem to be “advocating or fostering violence, vengeance or hatred toward particular religious, racial or ethnic groups” or advocating “the overthrow or destruction of the United States.”
The ACLU has framed the issue as one of religious freedom. David Shapiro, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, explained: “BOP officials need to follow the law, not engage in the business of banning religious material. Distributing and reading religious material is as protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as worshipping in churches or preaching from the pulpits. It is not the role of the government to dictate what is religiously acceptable.”
What’s more, the ACLU and its allies charge that the rule as written, with its language about material that “could…suggest” violence, is too broad, and can be applied in far too sweeping a manner. “We’re with the ACLU on this particular issue because it’s very important for religious freedom that these texts be available,” said Kevin Theriot of the ADF. “Somebody could take offense with the Bible, which teaches that Jesus is the only way to the Father. That’s an offensive idea to people who are not Christians. They could say that’s inciting trouble.” Shapiro agrees in principle: “They could remove texts that are critical to prisoners’ ability to practice their religion.” And indeed, there are indications that Bureau of Prisons officials have been overzealous in applying the law. The ACLU says that authorities have ordered removed from prison chapel libraries books that do not incite violence by any stretch of the imagination, including Moses Maimonides’ Code of Jewish Law and The Purpose Driven Life by the popular evangelical pastor Rick Warren.
If that is true, Bureau of Prisons officials should acknowledge, in their very best bureaucratese, that Mistakes Were Made, but the proposed rule as a whole should not be scrapped. For the rule was instituted in the first place because in 2005 authorities discovered and foiled a jihadist plot that appeared to have been directed from New Folsom Prison in California. Levar Hanley Washington, a parolee from prison, and his accomplice Gregory Patterson, were arrested after being implicated in a series of robberies. They had a document with them that detailed how to set off bombs by remote control and get silencers for pistols. Investigators followed the trail to the cell of a New Folsom Prison inmate, Kevin Lamar James. In his cell was the draft of a press release that declared jihad in Southern California and stated that one of the planned attacks would be just the first in a series: “This incident is the first in a series of incidents to come in a plight to defend and propagate traditional Islam in its purity.”
Prison officials began to consider the possibility that James got his ideas about Islam from books in the prison library, and thus started – belatedly -- to pay attention to the kind of religious books were being stocked in prison libraries in general, thereby beginning a process that led to the current proposal. But the ACLU claims that “works such as the Bible, the Qur’an and Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail’ could be left vulnerable because, theoretically, they could suggest violence or criminal activity to a reader.”
This case calls for some clear thinking and willingness to face realities that don’t match politically correct dogmas – neither of which is in abundant supply these days. There is no global network of terrorists committing acts of violence and preaching supremacism while justifying their actions with reference to the Bible or the works of Martin Luther King. There is, however, a global network of terrorists – one that is working energetically to make recruits in American prisons – that is committing acts of violence and preaching supremacism while justifying their actions with reference to the Qur’an. Should prison authorities be able to prevent the dissemination among inmates of material that preaches hatred of infidels and the necessity to wage war against them and subjugate them under the rule of Islamic law? There are indeed thorny issues of religious freedom involved here, but the Islamic books in question are agitating for the violent imposition of a political system, rooted in religious beliefs, that is at direct variance with U.S. Constitutional principles regarding the freedom of speech and the equality of rights of all people before the law.
It ought to be possible for the Bureau of Prisons officials to formulate regulations that enables them to stop the dissemination of such material among prisoners without snagging Maimonides, Rick Warren, the Bible and Martin Luther King in the process. But in order to do so, they would have to grasp the nettle of the politico/religious character of Islam, and acknowledge the uniqueness of traditional Islam as containing a political and social program – one that is to be advanced by violence where necessary – as well as a religious one in the Western sense.
But in this age of Obama, nothing seems much less likely than prison officials doing that.