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State high court rejects inmate's challenge to religious-services rules

By The Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — The state Supreme Court has ruled that the Mississippi Department of Corrections has a legal right to put conditions on inmate-led religious services at prisons.

The April 18 ruling came in a complaint filed by Donnie Russell, an inmate at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. A Sunflower County judge dismissed the case in 1998.

Russell claimed his constitutional rights were violated by a MDOC policy that required chaplains or volunteers be present during all inmate religious services and that inmates not be allowed to preach.

Russell also complained that the MDOC has refused to allow the inmates to receive the sacrament of communion at least once every six weeks, a practice that is allowed by MDOC policies and procedures. He claimed the chaplains only offer communion "once or twice a year."

The Supreme Court upheld dismissal of the case except as it applied to communion. The justices directed the trial judge to conduct a hearing on whether communion is offered only once or twice a year in violation of the MDOC policy.

Justice Bill Waller Jr., writing in the April 18 decision, said the U.S. Constitution does not require MDOC to treat all inmate groups alike when there is a threat of institutional disruption.

"The MDOC has demonstrated a rational basis — a reasonable fear that one inmate would obtain authority over other inmates by exercise of spiritual direction — for its distinctions between Russell's religious group and other religious groups within the prison," Waller wrote.

Russell claimed the Christian inmates were being discriminated against because the Muslims had inmate-led religious and sacramental services and the Muslims could buy sacramental products at the canteen.

Waller said the right to practice one's religious beliefs is a constitutional right protected even during imprisonment. However, he said corrections officials also have an interest in keeping order at their prisons.

Waller said changes were made for Muslim inmates because they were not able to attend religious services at all.

"Russell is able to attend religious services at Parchman on a regular basis, but he complains that they are not to his liking. His preferences as to how religious services are conducted do not rise to a constitutional violation of the freedom to exercise one's religion," Waller wrote.

Justice James E. Graves Jr., in a dissenting opinion, said allowing one religious group to conduct its own religious services while not allowing another religious group to do so "appears to violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution."

"In other words, if the prison allows members of the Muslim religion to conduct their own services, then the prison should allow members of the Christian faith to conduct their own services," Graves wrote in a dissent joined by Presiding Justice Chuck McRae and Justice Chuck Easley.


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R.I. inmate wins right to resume jailhouse preaching
Settling three-year legal battle, correction officials adopt policy allowing Wesley Spratt to preach at religious services under chaplain's supervision. 08.02.07

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