1st Circuit: R.I. inmate can sue over preaching ban

By The Associated Press

BOSTON — A federal appeals court has overturned a decision by Rhode Island correction officials to ban a convicted murderer from preaching in prison, rejecting their argument that his sermons presented a security threat.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in its opinion, released on April 6, that Wesley R. Spratt's seven years as a preacher were "unblemished by any hint of unsavory activity," and that "at the very least casts doubt on the strength of the link between his activities and institutional security."

Under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, prisons cannot impose a "substantial burden" on the religious practices of an inmate.

The unanimous three-judge panel's ruling in Spratt v. Rhode Island Dept. of Corrections overturns a decision by a district judge and sends the case back to the district court for a hearing on its merits.

Spratt was convicted of shooting a Providence parking lot attendant to death in a 1995 robbery.

He began preaching to fellow inmates after attending Christian worship services in prison and experiencing a religious awakening. He preached for seven years, until Adult Correctional Institutions officials stopped him in 2003, citing "security concerns."

Spratt sued, saying the decision violated his right to practice his religion behind bars.

The state Department of Corrections argued the prison was entitled to act pre-emptively to head off any potential security risks, and said Spratt's preaching was "dangerous to institutional security under any circumstances." But the appeals panel stated that "it is not clear" how ACI officials reached that conclusion.

Spratt's attorney, Lynette Labinger, argued that her client's preaching was always supervised and never incited other inmates.