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.