The federal Bureau of Prisons has granted chaplains a religious accommodation so they are no longer required to be armed with pepper spray when they counsel inmates.
The new ruling was revealed by Liberty Counsel, which defended the officers when the dispute arose a few months ago.
The change, announced Friday, means the chaplains can “minister to inmates without violating their own faith convictions,” said Liberty Counsel chief Mat Staver.
“There is nothing wrong with carrying defensive weapons like OC spray, except when a chaplain’s convictions require him to be armed not with physical weapons, but with spiritual. As President Trump and Attorney General Sessions have instructed, federal agencies must protect religious liberty in the federal workplace and provide reasonable accommodations for religious free exercise,” Staver said.
“We are pleased that the Bureau of Prisons has accommodated the religious beliefs of our clients, so that they may return to ministry,” he said.
The chaplains long had had exemptions from such requirements, but those were lifted after the adoption of the Eric Williams Correctional Officer Protection Act of 2015.
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The law required that federal correctional officers generally, but not chaplains specifically, carry OC spray and be trained in its use.
Then the BOP “began to punish chaplains who requested relief from the new directive,” the report from Liberty Counsel explained.
“For example, one chaplain was ordered off the premises of a correctional institution after he had requested a religious accommodation. Others were subjected to various forms of coercion, both overt and subtle. Between the act’s passage and the retaliation against the chaplains, BOP first said the act would not apply to chaplains; then the BOP granted religious accommodations; and later revoked the accommodations and retaliated against chaplains who stood firm, thus necessitating Liberty Counsel intervention,” the legal team said.
Inside federal prisons, chaplains have a long history of working unarmed “because of their personal faith convictions and the pastoral nature of their role in ministering to inmates,” Liberty Counsel said.
Liberty Counsel’s letter to the chief of a prison where the arming was an issue said the institution’s threats of “adverse employment action and termination” needed to be withdrawn.
“At a minimum, the Bureau of Prisons must provide a reasonable accommodation from compliance with the requirement and either waive the requirement altogether, as applied against the chaplains, or transfer the chaplains to a minimum or low security location.”
The letter explained: “Many BOP chaplains, including our clients, as a part of their own religious faith, feel called by God to minister among the inmate population without physical weapons of defense.”
Before the new law, they were not required to carry weapons.
Even the Bureau of Prisons manual explains that their role is “primarily” pastoral.
And, the letter said, the changed rule did not require every BOP worker to be armed.
Instead, it states that officers and employees “are authorized” to carry OC spray.
“It is clear that the act does not require chaplains to carry OC spray,” Liberty Counsel said.
Yet officials still refused a request for an accommodation.
The U.S. Constitution, however, protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion.”