Non-Christian Prison Chaplains Laid Off in British Columbia

Eight current and former prisoners in British Columbia, Canada are suing the federal government (PDF) because their rights are being violated.

The problem is that the government recently laid off 49 part-time chaplains… including all the ones who represented non-Christian beliefs:

The layoffs, expected to take effect at the end of March, will leave British Columbia without a non-Christian chaplain.

The part-time chaplains are to be replaced with a mix of volunteers and the [Correctional Service of Canada's] 71 full-time Christian chaplains and two full-time Muslim chaplains.

Several non-Christian prisoners have wanted religious counseling but haven’t been able to get it. That’s a civil rights issue.

The CSC wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but released a statement saying it is committed to respecting religious freedom.

The agency “will also continue to engage the voluntary support of our community partners to deliver chaplaincy services to offenders,” the statement read.

“CSC remains committed to respecting the religious freedom and right of expression of federal offenders of all faiths, and will continue to provide support and services to offenders of all religious backgrounds.”

They say that, but what will likely happen is that many Christian chaplains will be unable to meet the needs of the non-Christian prisoners. They’ll start talking in Christianese and alienate the inmates even further.

It’s tempting to say the Canadian government should lay off all the chaplains, but the reality of the situation is that the chaplains can often give prisoners the help they need to rehabilitate and get better, help they can’t really get elsewhere in the system. (Though I’m sure they could make the chaplaincy entirely voluntary and still fill the positions.)

This case has merit. Unless the government can explain why so many non-Christian chaplains were canned when there is a sizable non-Christian prison population in British Columbia — nearly 40% of inmates are neither Protestant nor Catholic — they’re going to be found guilty of religious discrimination.

Incidentally, there’s no mention of non-religious inmates anywhere in the article. I want to believe that’s because the number of non-religious inmates is miniscule, but it’s not. In 2005, the CSC said that 4,286 of the 21,702 offenders (incarcerated or on parole) labeled themselves as having “No Religion.” If only Christian chaplains are kept on board, that affects those 20% of “Nones,” too.

(Thanks to Richard for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Dorothy

    it’s all part of Harper’s agenda. nothing unexpected. he took lessons from Bush

  • Rains

    They’ll start talking in Christianese and alienate the inmates even further.

    Well, when your religion created the universe and controls every aspect of it, then it’s hard not to think in terms of your religion. I mean, if you own the entire universe and everything in it, then people pretty much know you’re lying when you pretend to be objective about other god that own the universe too.

  • Stev84

    I’m in favor of firing them all. Saves even more money.

    And whatever practical use they have towards rehabilitation is better filled by something like a secular social worker.

  • C Peterson

    The government shouldn’t be paying for any chaplains. That’s a function that can be fully provided by volunteers- and if there is any religion that can’t muster up volunteers for something like this, that’s an important and useful message to send to its imprisoned adherents.

    This doesn’t just apply to prisons, but the military as well. Fire all the chaplains.

    • Artor

      I’m with you on this. As Hemant pointed out, they do serve a purpose, but I think that purpose could be served better by a secular counselor/advocate. Chaplaining (is that a word?) should be done by volunteers, not paid agents of the gov’t.

      • C Peterson

        I absolutely see the need and value for counselors in stressful environments where people are captive to the state, such as prisons or the military. Just not counselors who advocate any religious position or who represent any religion (unless they are simply volunteers).

  • Sam

    It should be noted that the First Nations are massively overrepresented in the Canadian prison system, and that even those who do identify as Christian have now lost access to full-time chaplains who specialize in traditional FN beliefs, the integration of which has been a key positive factor in long-term rehabilitation and community healing in recent years.

  • Len

    This originally came to a head last October. Vic Toews the public safety minister personally got involved in the decision. This was right after they decided to get a Wiccan chaplain for the prisoners who wanted one. I can only imagine that some angry Christian resident of his riding sent some angry letters.
    Also cancelled were positions for Sikh, Jewish, Muslim and first nations chaplains.

  • Edmond

    If these prisoners had been attentive to their religious “beliefs” in the first place, then maybe they wouldn’t BE prisoners. Maybe if they could discover atheism, then they could learn that they must take responsibility for their OWN actions, rather than going through life assuming that they have a free “ask for forgiveness” card from someone who died “for” them.

  • Thomas J. Lawson

    Couldn’t help but notice that the affiliations add up to 69.5%. So the unaffiliated are sitting at almost 31%. Seems to be an accurate representation of the general population.

    • Hemant Mehta

      I think that’s fair, though keep in mind unaffiliated includes a whole bunch of people who are either apathetic about religion altogether or “Spiritual but not religious”