April 2020 Church & State Magazine - April 2020

Americans United Seeks Parity For Religious Books In Pa. County Jails

  Americans United Seeks Parity For Religious Books In Pa. County Jails

Americans United in February wrote to corrections officials at several county jails in Pennsylvania and demanded that they end religious dis­crimination against Muslim prisoners whose access to religious texts and other religious items is restricted due to the excessive price the jails charge for them.

AU acted after two online news sites, PA Post and PennLive, reported that at least six county jail commissaries have been identified as selling Qurans and other Muslim religious items (such as prayer rugs and prayer beads) at an exorbitantly high cost – especially in comparison with comparable Christian items – when much less expensive or even donated items could be made available to people who are incarcerated.

For example, the County of Adams Adult Correctional Facility sells Qurans for $21.20 – nearly three times the cost of Bibles at only $7.95. The Wyoming County Correctional Facility sells Qurans for $27.95 – more than double the cost of Bibles at $11.50. In Columbia County, inmates can get Bibles absolutely free, but must pay $20 for a Quran.

In a letter to the correctional officials, AU attorneys warned that it is unconstitutional, as well as a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), to prevent people who are incarcerated from practicing their faith, or to favor members of some religions by giving them privileged access to religious items.

“Our country promises religious freedom for everyone, including people who are incarcerated. That means jails and prisons must provide equal opportunities for all prisoners to practice their faith,” said Alex Luchen­itser, associate legal director at Americans United. “Some prisoners draw strength and comfort from religious texts or rituals, and Pennsylvania’s jails must make a reasonable effort to ensure that incarcerated people have the ability to practice the faith of their choice.”

Americans United identified six Pennsylvania counties whose jails are limiting prisoners’ access to Muslim religious materials: Adams, Bucks, Columbia, Lycoming, Mercer and Wyoming. AU requested that the jails end the price disparity by seeking alternate vendors, or by taking other steps to provide religious materials at a reasonable price that is equitable across faiths.

In a post on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, the organization asserted, “Correctional officials in Pennsylvania have an obligation to treat all religions equally. Right now, some of them are showing preference to the majority faith by charging three times more for a Quran than a Bible. This must stop. Americans United hopes our letter will resolve this issue.”

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