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On The Front Lines

First Amendment Lawsuit Filed Against Sex Offender Rehab Facility for Restricting Residents’ Access to Bible Studies, Services

RICHMOND, Va. — The Rutherford Institute has filed a First Amendment lawsuit against government officials for discriminating against Protestant Christian inmates at a state-run sex offender rehabilitation facility and restricting their access to Bible studies and Protestant communion. In a complaint filed in federal court against the Commonwealth of Virginia and the director of the Virginia Center for Behavioral and Rehabilitation (VCBR), Rutherford Institute attorneys allege that VCBR violated First Amendment and federal and state statutes protecting the religious exercise of institutionalized persons when facility administrators restricted Protestant residents’ ability to celebrate communion and hold a weekly Protestant Bible study while at the same time accommodating the religious beliefs of Catholic and Muslim inmates to participate in their respective religious services.

Affiliate attorney Tim Coffield is assisting The Rutherford Institute with the lawsuit.

“The most fundamental guarantee of the First Amendment is that the government must remain neutral when it comes to religion, neither favoring nor penalizing one religion over another,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Certainly, the government can make no compelling case for depriving Christian prisoners of access to religious experiences that may assist in their education and rehabilitation, while allowing Muslim prisoners the benefit of such religious experiences.”

The Virginia Center for Behavioral and Rehabilitation (VCBR), located in Burkeville, Va., is designated by the Commonwealth of Virginia to house and treat persons who are civilly committed as sex offenders and who have been determined to pose a risk to the community. VCBR residents, after having served time for criminal offenses, are institutionalized indefinitely for treatment aimed at reducing their risk to society and allowing their return to the community. Like other inmates and residents of similar facilities, VCBR residents are entitled to the protections of the First Amendment, including the right to freely exercise their religious beliefs. However, while facility administrators have made accommodations for the religious beliefs of Muslim and Catholic inmates, they have refused to accommodate the particular religious needs of Protestant inmates, especially as it relates to religious studies and communion. For example, VCBR requires that all group religious activities be led by a volunteer or spiritual leader approved by the facility. Nonetheless, Muslim residents are allowed to conduct weekly religious services without an outside volunteer in attendance, allegedly because of the difficulties in obtaining a volunteer. No similar allowance was granted to Protestant Christian residents: after the previous Bible studies volunteer ceased coming to the facility, VCBR cancelled the weekly Bible study rather than allow them to be held without a volunteer. Protestant Christians also asked for permission to partake in the sacrament of Protestant communion once a month as part of their group services, but were told that they could only do so as part of the Catholic service. In filing suit against VCBR and the Commonwealth of Virginia, The Rutherford Institute asserts that VCBR’s refusal to accommodate the needs of the Protestant Christian inmates as it accommodates those of the Muslim and Catholic inmates runs afoul of the First Amendment’s requirement that the government treat religions equally and violates state and federal law.

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