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New Jersey DOC Agrees to Let Prisoner Preach

In November 2009, the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) settled a lawsuit brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The suit, filed by the ACLU on behalf of a New Jersey state prisoner, alleged the DOC had violated RLUIPA by refusing to let prisoners preach.

Howard Thompson has been incarcerated at the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) since 1986. During more than 20 years of confinement he has been a devout and active adherent to the Pentecostal faith, often participating and preaching at Sunday church services and other religious events.

In October 2000, Thompson was formally ordained as a Pentecostal minister. Over the next several years he preached more regularly and led other activities, such as Bible study, without incident. Indeed, the prison’s chaplaincy staff often encouraged Thompson to preach, believing he was a positive influence on his fellow prisoners.

In June 2007, shortly after Reverend Pamela Moore took over as chaplain at NJSP, she told Thompson that he would no longer be allowed to preach. According to Moore, the NJSP administration had decided to ban all prisoner preaching.

With the help of the ACLU of New Jersey, Thompson filed a federal lawsuit against the DOC on December 3, 2008. By denying Thompson the ability to preach, the DOC was substantially burdening his sincerely held belief that he was called to “preach and lead others in worship, study and prayer,” the complaint stated. Further, the DOC’s outright ban on prisoner preaching violated RLUIPA, the suit argued, because it did not meet the statute’s least restrictive means requirement.

The case settled on November 24, 2009, with the DOC agreeing that Thompson could continue to preach provided the chaplain or an approved volunteer consents and is present during the preaching, and an outline of the sermon or message Thompson wants to deliver is reviewed and approved in advance.

“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,” Thompson said.

“The decision by prison officials in New Jersey to allow Mr. Thompson to resume practicing his faith is a welcome acknowledgment that religious freedom in this country extends to all,” stated 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 was represented by Mach and ACLU attorneys Heather L. Weaver, Edward Barocas and Nadia Seeratan. See: Thompson v. Ricci, U.S.D.C. (D. NJ), Case No. 3:08-cv-05926-AET-DEA.

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Related legal case

Thompson v. Ricci