PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A federal judge has upheld a rule barring a convicted killer from preaching at jailhouse religious services saying the ban is designed to maintain security.
U.S. District Judge William Smith called his decision "somewhat of a close call." Although the ban on preaching violates inmates' right to religious freedom, it's related to a compelling state interest: maintaining a safe prison, Smith said.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed two years ago by Wesley Spratt, who began preaching at religious services in the prison chapel in 1996 after what he described as a calling from God.
Spratt, who has been in the maximum-security wing of the state prison in Cranston since his conviction for fatally shooting a parking-lot attendant a decade ago, preached under the supervision of a prison chaplain.
But a new warden ended the practice in 2003, saying that placing inmates in a position of authority — such as preaching — could cause unrest.
Spratt argued in the lawsuit that the warden violated a federal religious-liberties law adopted in 2000. The Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union backed Spratt's lawsuit and may appeal this week's ruling, Executive Director Steven Brown said.
Ken Findlay, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said he was pleased the decision reaffirmed the department's position.
Prison officials never accused Spratt of sparking unrest while he preached, although he was accused of loudly confronting a guard this spring.
Brown questioned why authorities weren't willing to explore less-restrictive measures before resorting to a ban on prisoner preaching.
"Here's a guy who's trying to turn himself around," Brown said. "Why would we want the state to undercut that deep religious conviction?"