On Religious Freedom

A military chaplain, the Rev Ronald Apollo, sued the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to be able to practice his religious beliefs and won. BOP wanted all personnel to carry pepper spray, including chaplains, so that if attacked by an inmate they could protect themselves. Apollo challenged the rule and now prison chaplains will no longer have to carry pepper spray. That to some may be just another example of how the Christian right asserts its values on the society, but it is more than that. First of course is the issue that there are many rules in the BOP and elsewhere which may have negative impact which we are not conscious of. Here it was the fact the BOP’s rule was based on a Federal law to keep prisons safe. But the gist of the case is the fact that Apollo is a member of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith which calls on its members to renounce “weapons of human strife’ and that to him pepper spray was such a weapon.  He was defended by Liberty Counsel, a non profit which gives free assistance including with litigation, to people whose religious freedom and Christian values are being violated. Their case was based on the fact that Apollo felt his neutrality negated by having to carry a weapon, he could no longer be neutral (chaplains in prisons are often called upon to mediate disputes).  It not only jeopardized his impartiality it made it look as if he was on the side of the correctional officers.

The case reported by the Marshall project was a teaching moment for me. We normally equate religious freedom with the Christian right and therefore assume that the outcome will necessarily be one that may go against our own values. Here the Christian right representatives did the right thing, even though as a group they tend to be pro law-enforcement in prisons as in anywhere else, a stance that does at times violate the civil rights of people in detention. Yet, in this instance they defended a principle that while it upheld the conscience of Apollo, also protected inmates. It was a good reminder that as a concept religious freedom has value, and just because the Christian right typically uses it to promote its own beliefs, does not undo that value.