Inmates in British Columbia have filed suit to overturn a decision by the Canadian government to cut part-time prison chaplains, alleging that the policy has nearly eliminated prison ministry to minority faiths.
“Prisoners do not lose their right to freely express their religious and spiritual beliefs by virtue of their incarceration,” said the lawsuit, which asks the court to declare the policy a violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and to reinstate minority faith chaplains in British Columbia.
The suit was triggered by Ottawa’s announcement last October that it was canceling the contracts of all part-time prison chaplains to save an estimated $1.3 million. The non-Christian chaplains ministered to Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, and Buddhist inmates, and to those who follow aboriginal spirituality.
The legal action, brought against Attorney General Rob Nicholson and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, charges that Christian prisoners continue to have access to Christian religious services, Bible study sessions, and other faith-based activities.
The lawsuit was filed by seven prisoners in federal institutions in British Columbia, by one inmate recently transferred from British Columbia to a prison in New Brunswick, and by the West Coast Prison Justice Society.
Prison advocates said the cuts would hurt non-Christian prisoners, who would be expected to turn to full-time, overwhelmingly Christian chaplains for spiritual care and guidance. Of the 75 full-time chaplains at federal prisons, 37 are Roman Catholic, 36 are Protestant, and two are Muslim, according to the Correctional Service of Canada.
Ottawa has said volunteer chaplains are welcome at prisons.
“There are over 2,500 individuals who provide spiritual services to prisoners of many faiths on a voluntary basis,” Correctional Service spokeswoman Julie Carmichael said. “This approach supports the freedom of religion of prisoners while ensuring that taxpayer dollars are used wisely and appropriately.”