A group of Jewish inmates have filed a civil lawsuit after Colorado prison officials prevented them from assembling in April on two evenings that mark the start of Passover.
The suit, which also alleges that Christian inmates received preferential treatment, is the latest in a series of grievances by Jewish prisoners in recent years. It comes just as state officials prepare to welcome hundreds of evangelical Christian volunteers next month for a series of prison-yard conversion rallies that have sparked criticism from Jewish advocates.
"It is a big disappointment that they are capable of arranging those kinds of programs, but they can't even accommodate the Passover Seder," said Gary Friedman, chairman of the Seattle-based Jewish Prisoner Services International.
Last month, state prisons barred Jewish inmates from gathering in the evening for the Passover Seder, which includes a small meal, wine and solemn telling of the ancient story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Roderick Hardiman, Michael Davis and Allen Fistell are named as plaintiffs in the suit which was filed in state court on April 20, just days before the holiday.
"It's always been allowed in the past, but suddenly they decided otherwise," Friedman said.
No reasonable excuse
The inmates, who were allowed to assemble during daylight hours, argue that prison officials offered no reasonable excuse for restricting two evening get-togethers, the traditional time for Seder observance.
Alison Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, declined to speak specifically about the lawsuit, citing its ongoing nature. However, she defended the department's handling of religious issues.
"No inmate receives preferential treatment," she said. "All inmates are treated the same."
But Lindsey Topper, the Colorado Springs attorney representing the inmates, disagreed. He said prison schedules show that other religious groups, such as KAIROS, a Christian ministry, have recently been allowed to hold special religious meetings.
"It's a thing of fairness," he said.
This isn't the first time Jewish inmates have complained that prison officials have reduced or restricted their religious liberties. In 2000, several inmates, including Fistell, fought a successful five-year court battle to be served kosher food. The Independent detailed other extensive grievances from non-Christian prisoners in Colorado in a Dec. 9, 2004 cover story, "Barred from faith," which can be read online at www.csindy.com.
Prison officials currently don't allow Jewish inmates to observe Sabbath on Saturday mornings.
Those issues, and others, could prompt further legal action and a potential filing in federal court.
"There's a continuing bias against Jewish inmates," Friedman said.
Live music and free Bibles
Friedman also said there appeared to be a bias in the prison system, which has granted extensive visitation rights to Operation Starting Line, an evangelical Christian volunteer organization, which will tour Colorado's prisons next month. The event is supported by prison officials who have even provided a link to Operation Starting Line's Web site on the Department of Corrections' Web page, www.doc.state.co.us.
Inmates who participate will hear live music and receive free Bibles. Volunteers from area churches aim to reach "nearly 100 percent of a prison's population," according to Operation Starting Line's Web site. Officials with the national evangelical organization Prison Fellowship Ministries, a major sponsor of the event, said they weren't prepared to respond to questions, but said participation by inmates is voluntary.
But Rob Boston of Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State questioned whether the Department of Corrections should provide links to the event on a taxpayer-funded Web site.
In a separate case, Americans United has filed a federal lawsuit stating that group and prison officials in Iowa discriminated against non-Christians in a rehabilitation program called InnerChange. The suit alleges that the state-funded program is discriminatory in its hiring practices and has provided evangelical Christian inmates with privileges they would otherwise not get, including free telephone calls and computers, Boston said.
Just two weeks ago, a report by Americans United prompted the Air Force to create a task force to look into allegations that evangelicals received preferential treatment at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
-- Michael de Yoanna