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Fighting for Virginia Inmates to Receive Sermons on CDs

NORFOLK, VA -- The Rutherford Institute has filed a First Amendment lawsuit challenging a Virginia Department of Corrections directive that prohibits inmates from receiving CDs containing spoken words. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Kyle Mabe, an inmate who was denied the right to receive a CD containing a Christian sermon. The lawsuit, which was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleges that the directive violates the rights of inmates to receive information and practice their religion under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

“Prisoners have a constitutional and statutory right to receive information,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “While prison officials have a right to inspect such materials, they cannot under RLUIPA and the U.S. Constitution deny prisoners access to such materials.”

On September 2, 2009, while incarcerated at St. Brides Correctional Center in Chesapeake, Va., inmate Kyle Mabe sought to order a CD with a Christian sermon titled “Life Without a Cross” from Still Waters Ministries of Kentucky. That particular sermon, like most of the sermons offered for free by Still Waters Ministries, is available only on CD and not in written form. However, corrections officials refused to process Mabe’s request, pointing out that prisoners are only permitted to receive “music CDs, no Sermons on CDs.”

On September 7, Mabe filed an informal complaint with prison officials, explaining that his request for a sermon on CD had been denied, which in turn was restricting his ability to practice his Christian faith. Prison officials responded by citing a memorandum issued by John M. Jabe, Deputy Director for Operations of the Virginia Department of Corrections, directing that inmates are allowed to receive only music CDs and that no sermons or other spoken word could be received by inmates on CDs. Mabe then filed a grievance with the warden, followed by an appeal, both of which were denied.

In filing a lawsuit in defense of Mabe’s right to exercise his religious beliefs, Institute attorneys charge that the prohibition on non-music CDs violates RLUIPA, a federal law forbidding corrections officials from imposing substantial burdens upon the religious exercise of prisoners unless officials are furthering a compelling interest. The complaint, which names the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Department of Corrections, its Director and Deputy Director Jabe, also alleges that the restriction violates Mabe’s First Amendment right to receive information and exercise his religious beliefs, as well as his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law.


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