TRENTON, NJ - Prompted by an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, state prison officials in New Jersey have agreed to restore the right of a devout Christian prisoner to preach at weekly worship services and teach Bible study classes.
Under the terms of a settlement agreement, Howard Thompson, Jr., an ordained Pentecostal minister, will once again be allowed to preach in prison, a practice banned two years ago without any warning or justification.
"The decision by prison officials in New Jersey to allow Mr. Thompson to resume practicing his faith is a welcome acknowledgement that religious freedom in this country extends to all," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The ban on prisoner preaching was clearly at odds with the law and the American value of religious liberty, and this decision was long overdue."
Thompson had preached at weekly worship services at the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) for more than a decade when, in 2007, prison officials issued a blanket ban on such preaching by prisoners, even when done under the direct supervision of prison staff. In response, the ACLU and the ACLU of New Jersey filed a lawsuit on Thompson's behalf last December, arguing that the ban unconstitutionally infringed upon Thompson's right to freely practice his religion. The lawsuit named NJSP Administrator Michelle R. Ricci and New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner George W. Hayman as defendants.
Since entering NJSP in 1986, Thompson has been an active member of the prison's Christian community, preaching at Sunday services, teaching Bible study classes and founding the choir. His preaching never caused any security problems. Indeed, the prison's chaplaincy staff had actively supported and encouraged Thompson, believing that he was a positive influence on his fellow inmates.
"The ban prevented me from responding to my religious calling to minister to my fellow inmates, something I had done honestly, effectively and without any incident for years," said Thompson. "All I have ever wanted was to have my religious rights restored so that I could continue working with men who want to renew their lives through the study and practice of their faith."
Ordained in October 2000 during a service at NJSP overseen by the prison's chaplain, Thompson sincerely believes it is his religious calling and obligation to preach his Pentecostal faith and has always been willing to do so under the full supervision of NJSP staff.
"The right to freely express religious viewpoints without the fear of repercussions is one of Americans' most fundamental constitutional rights," said Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "It is gratifying to see prison officials in our state take that constitutional obligation seriously."
The legal team for Thompson included Mach and Heather L. Weaver of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and Barocas and Nadia Seeratan of the ACLU of New Jersey.
The lawsuit was just the latest in a long line of ACLU cases defending the fundamental right to religious exercise, a more expansive list of which is available online at: www.aclu.org/defendingreligion
A copy of the settlement agreement is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion-belief/thompson-v-ricci-et-al-settlement-agreement
A copy of the ACLU's complaint on behalf of Thompson is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison/restrict/37953lgl20081120.html
Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion
Additional information about the ACLU of New Jersey is available online at: www.aclu-nj.org