Inmate wins prison preaching fight

A convicted killer who had been barred from preaching in prison will be allowed to resume the practice under an agreement announced Monday that ends a three-year legal battle.

Wesley Spratt, an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church, preached for about seven years in prison after undergoing a religious awakening and receiving what he said was a calling from God.

He began preaching to fellow inmates, under the supervision of a clergyman, during weekly services in prison, according to court papers. Officials banned him from preaching in 2003, saying it posed a security risk to give inmates positions of leadership or authority.

Spratt sued the state Department of Corrections in 2004 for the right to resume preaching. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston sided with Spratt this year, saying his participation in the religious services was “unblemished by any hint of unsavory activity.”

A new department policy adopted as part of the settlement permits inmates to preach at jailhouse religious services under the supervision of a chaplain.

The policy still imposes certain conditions, such as prohibiting sermons that encourage racism, hate or divisiveness and forbidding any one inmate from monopolizing the time allotted for sermons, said lawyers involved in brokering the agreement.

“We decided that it was in our best interests to develop a policy rather than have a policy developed for us,” said Patricia Coyne-Fague, an attorney for the corrections department.

The department also acknowledges that it infringed on Spratt’s right to practice religion in prison.

Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, which pursued the case on Spratt’s behalf, said he was pleased by the resolution.

“Our goal from the beginning was to vindicate Wesley Spratt’s right to preach at the ACI,” he said.

Spratt is serving a life sentence in the maximum security unit of the state prison in Cranston for the 1995 murder of a parking lot attendant in Providence.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday August 1, 2007.
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