Civil Liberties Groups Challenge State Funding of Religious Ministries

June 24, 2013
Share this:

State’s actions violate the NJ Constitution and Law Against Discrimination

NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ), the national ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit today to stop the state of New Jersey from awarding more than $11 million in taxpayer funds to two higher education institutions dedicated solely to religious training and instruction.

The groups also filed a petition asking the court to immediately prevent the state from doling out grants to those two institutions, Beth Medrash Govoha and Princeton Theological Seminary.

“We support freedom of religion; however the government has no business funding religious ministries,” said Ed Barocas, legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “Taxpayers should not foot the bill to train clergy or provide religious instruction, but the state is attempting to do exactly that.”

Gloria Schor Andersen and Rev. Craig Hirshberg

Gloria Schor Andersen and Rev. Craig Hirshberg

On April 29, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration released a list of 176 college construction projects it intends to aid with money from a voter-approved bond. The New Jersey Constitution forbids any such taxpayer funds from supporting ministries or places of worship.

Yet Beth Medrash Govoha, an orthodox Jewish rabbinical school in Lakewood, is slated to receive $10.6 million from the state to pay for the construction of a new library and academic center. All courses of study at Beth Medrash Govoha are classified as “Theology/Theological Studies” or “Talmudic Studies.” The school prepares students to become rabbis and religious educators.

Similarly, Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian Christian seminary located in Princeton, is slated to receive $645,323 from the state. All courses of study at the seminary either prepare students to serve as ministers or priests in Christian religious traditions or to serve as religious educators. The New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education’s website identifies the school as a “theological institution.”

“Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for the training of clergy,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “These grants plainly violate the separation of church and state enshrined in the New Jersey Constitution.”

Giving public money to Beth Medrash Govoha also violates the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The school is identified in federal records as a single-sex school with only male students. According to state records, its entire student body of 6,538 students was all-male in 2012, and all 79 members of its faculty were male during 2011.

“The state of New Jersey has an important role to play in providing financial support for institutions of higher learning in our state, but public money should not be used to fund schools that are not open and welcoming to all students in New Jersey ,” said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “State funding of higher education should not be done at the expense of the separation of church and state.”

The lawsuit was filed in Superior Court in Trenton. The plaintiffs in the case are the ACLU-NJ, the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey (UULMNJ) and Gloria Schor Andersen, a Voorhees Township resident who has been a public-school and a Hebrew School teacher/tutor. Andersen is also Speaker-at-Large for the Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“As a member of the clergy, I recognize the important responsibility that faith groups have in training their next generation of leaders,” said the Rev. Craig Hirshberg, executive director of UULMNJ. “However, their religious studies should not be funded by taxpayers. When the government financially supports religious groups, it provides privileges to particular religions over others and diverts designated public funds away from programs that should benefit all citizens.”

The Legislature has until June 28 to reject the grants. Some lawmakers have raised similar concerns about funding religious ministries and pressed the state for more information about its selection process.

In addition to the lawsuit, the ACLU-NJ has filed several open records requests with the state to learn more about the nature of the schools receiving funding and how the grants were awarded. The state failed to release scoring sheets and other records documenting how it determined who should receive the grants.

“These grants fly in the face of important state safeguards that protect the religious liberty of all New Jersey taxpayers,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Along with Barocas, Luchenitser, and Mach, the attorneys representing the plaintiffs include Frank Corrado of Barry, Corrado & Grassi, P.C.; Lenora Lapidus and Mie Lewis of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project; and Ayesha Khan, legal director of Americans United.

Related Content

State Denies ACLU-NJ Request for Information on Religious School Funding

June 6, 2013
Share this:

ACLU-NJ sought information on higher education institutions that applied for aid amid concerns that taxpayer dollars funded religious institutions

NEWARK – The state of New Jersey has denied a request (131k PDF) by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) to release the applications of all higher education institutions that applied for public funding for construction projects, stating that if the information were made public, it would “give an advantage to competitors or bidders.” The ACLU-NJ filed the requests to learn more about the nature of the schools receiving funding, and in particular to determine whether Gov. Chris Christie’s administration violated the divide between church and state.

“New Jersey has an important interest in supporting higher education in the state, but it cannot be done at the expense of the separation of church and state,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “Public money should not be used to fund religious schools or institutions that may discriminate. Yet both appear to be happening under Gov. Christie’s proposal.”

“The state’s rationale for refusing to release the applications we requested makes no sense. The application process is already closed, so there would be no advantage or disadvantage in releasing these records,” Ofer added.

The state also failed to release scoring sheets and other records documenting how New Jersey Higher Education determined whether schools were eligible for funds and how much they should receive.

In May, the state released a list of 176 college building projects it selected to receive state grants from a voter-approved bond. The ACLU-NJ and state lawmakers have pressed New Jersey Higher Education to shed light on the criteria it used to select projects to fund. The ACLU-NJ is concerned that at least two of the institutions on the list, Beth Medrash Govoha and Princeton Theological Seminary, exist with the primary mission of training sectarian religious leaders and may be discriminatory in their polices or practices.

Beth Medrash Govoha, an Orthodox yeshiva in Lakewood, received $10.6 million. According to New Jersey Higher Education, Beth Medrash Govoha is a rabbinical school. Princeton Theological Seminary, which trains male and female Christian ministers, received $645,313.

The state legislature can reject the list within 60 days of its release.

On May 8, the ACLU-NJ filed a request under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) for the applications of all private schools that received funding. It filed a separate request for the guidelines and parameters the state used in determining the grant amounts.

The state released to the ACLU-NJ only broad guidelines, which allow for great discretion in selecting how much each project receives.

On May 10, the ACLU-NJ filed a third OPRA request seeking all applications, scoring sheets and all correspondence between New Jersey Higher Education and representatives from each applicant. The state asked to extend the deadline for that request to June 24. The ACLU-NJ agreed to give the state more time to locate emails and other correspondence, but asked the state to release the scoring sheets by May 31. The state failed to meet that deadline.

“It’s extremely troubling that Gov. Christie’s administration expects the legislature to rubber stamp this list without answering any questions about how these schools were selected,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “The legislature should reject the funding until these serious public concerns are addressed.”

ACLU-NJ Seeks Information About Public Funds for Private Religious Schools

May 8, 2013
Share this:

NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) filed a public records request today seeking the parameters and guidelines Gov. Chris Christie’s administration used in determining which school construction projects to fund using taxpayer dollars.

The Christie administration this week released a list of private and public universities it intends to help using money from a voter-approved bond. The list included private religious schools, such as Beth Medrash Govoha, an all-male, orthodox Jewish rabbinical school in Lakewood and Princeton Theological Seminary, which trains male and female Christian ministers.

“State funding of some of these projects raises constitutional concerns that must be addressed,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The legislature should reject this funding proposal until Gov. Christie sheds more light on the criteria the state used in selecting which schools and projects to fund, and assures the public that government funding is not used to support programs that discriminate.”

Beth Medrash Govoha received $10.6 million to build a new library and academic center and Princeton Theological Seminary received $645,313 to improve the technology infrastructure of its library and other technological projects.

In addition to asking the state to provide the guidelines it used in making its funding decision, the ACLU-NJ is also seeking any applications the private institutions submitted to the state requesting the money.

Gov. Christie Earns Mixed Marks on Civil Liberties During His First Two Years

January 24, 2012
Share this:

ACLU-NJ examines Christie’s record on respecting rights

education

NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) released a midterm report card for Gov. Chris Christie today (182k PDF), issuing mostly low marks for his administration’s handling of critical civil liberties issues such as reproductive freedom and free speech.

The report card examines Christie’s record on an array of civil liberties issues during his first two years in office. The ACLU-NJ issued a similar report card for Newark Mayor Cory Booker (229k PDF) in 2009 during his first term in office.

“Christie has two years to turn a mediocre civil liberties record into a testament to individual rights,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. “The people of New Jersey expect a leader who will stand up for their freedoms, not one who will let them know that despite his unfair policies, his heart is in the right place. It’s time for Gov. Christie’s good intentions to turn into policies that strengthen our rights and improve our lives.”

The ACLU-NJ issued the following grades:

  • B in Freedom of Religion. Gov. Christie made headlines several times in his first term for defending the religious freedom of Muslims and warning against extremists trying to promote discrimination against Islam.

  • F in Freedom of Speech. When provided the opportunity to speak up for our nation’s most fundamental value, the Governor stood idly by, letting the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs trample the rights of Occupy Trenton, and going so far as to endorse the termination of a NJ Transit employee fired for exercising his right to free expression.

  • B- in LGBT Rights. Although the Governor has spoken out against bullying and supported some interests of the LGBT community, he has turned his back on marriage equality for same-sex couples.

  • D in Open Government. Although the Governor signed a bill that lowers the cost of copies in New Jersey, his administration has put itself on the wrong side of open government disputes numerous times, allowing agencies to hide public documents and forcing citizens to go to court to get them.

  • C in Police Practices. Improvements made by the Office of Attorney General (OAG) to its statewide police Internal Affairs policies were a step forward, but the OAG has failed to address other important issues, such as developing a statewide policy on the use of confidential informants.

  • C in Privacy Rights. The governor conditionally vetoed a bill that sought to open adoption records, taking into account the privacy rights of birth parents. At the same time, he signed into a law a bill that allows police to collect DNA of people once they have been arrested in violation of privacy and due process rights.

  • F in Reproductive Rights. Not only did the governor cut $7.5 million from the budget for family planning centers, but he also withdrew an application for a federal program that would have covered family planning expenses for some of New Jersey’s most vulnerable women and children.

  • D in Separation of Powers. The Governor refused to reappoint New Jersey Supreme Court Justice John J. Wallace, Jr., calling into question the tradition of evaluating judges based on merits, and personally attacked a Superior Court judge because he disagreed with the outcome of her ruling. Gov. Christie’s actions threaten to undermine the judiciary’s independence and credibility.

Court Halts Prayers in Point Pleasant Beach

December 17, 2010
Share this:

NEWARK — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey won a court order today that calls for the immediate suspension of a Point Pleasant Beach policy that allows for government-led prayer at municipal council meetings. The policy, adopted by the council in October 2010, allowed its municipal council members to lead meetings with prayers that reflect their personal religious beliefs.

The ACLU-NJ sued the borough on behalf of resident Sharon Cadalzo on November 9, 2010, and sought a preliminary injunction halting the practice. The current lawsuit is a second challenge by the ACLU-NJ to the borough's unconstitutional sponsorship of particular religious beliefs. Ocean County Assignment Judge Vincent J. Grasso issued the injunction. The lawsuit is still pending.

"The policy clearly violated the New Jersey constitution, which obligates the government to not show a preference for one religion over another," said Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director, who argued the motion. "We support the right of government officials to pray on their own time, but when they act as the voice of government, they cannot promote their own religious beliefs."

Cadalzo has been regularly attending council meetings since 2007. Until the new policy was adopted, the borough clerk recited the Lord's prayer and made the sign of the cross. The new policy has allowed the borough to continue its practice by authorizing council members to offer explicitly Christian prayers at their meetings, including the November 9 meeting which Cadalzo attended.

"Our community practices and celebrates many different faiths and beliefs," Cadalzo said. "The borough's actions and policy ignores our diversity and can have a chilling effect on residents who are not a member of the 'preferred' religion."

The ACLU-NJ first filed suit on Cadalzo's behalf on September 16, 2010. It dropped the suit after the borough agreed to stop reciting the Lord's Prayer. The borough then adopted the policy currently in dispute.

"I am pleased that the court has put a stop to this policy, which was a transparent attempt at circumventing the constitution," said ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney Frank L. Corrado, of Barry, Corrado, Grassi & Gibson P.C. in Wildwood, New Jersey. "I sincerely hope borough officials will recognize that promoting one religion over another is alienating, divisive and unconstitutional."

The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court of New Jersey, is captioned Cadalzo v. Borough of Point Pleasant Beach, et al., docket number OCN-L-4087-10.

More information about the ACLU's work to defend religious freedom can be found at http://www.aclu.org/aclu-defense-religious-practice-and-expression and http://www.aclufightsforchristians.com

ACLU-NJ Heads Back to Court over Municipal Prayer

November 9, 2010
Share this:

Point Pleasant Beach replaces Lord's Prayer with Sectarian Prayer Policy

Newark — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey announced today that it has once again filed suit against Point Pleasant Beach to challenge government-led prayers at municipal council meetings. The ACLU-NJ recently dismissed a previous lawsuit after the borough abandoned its practice of reciting the Lord's Prayer at every council meeting.

Point Pleasant Beach's new policy allows council members, on a rotating basis, to offer sectarian prayers - including the Lord's Prayer - at the start of council meetings. The ACLU-NJ represents borough resident Sharon Cadalzo in a challenge to this unconstitutional entanglement between the government and religion.

"The borough has replaced one unconstitutional policy with another." said Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director. "New Jersey law is clear that government invocations may not include sectarian prayers."

Cadalzo regularly attends council meetings and began questioning the borough's explicit preference for Christianity more than two years ago.

"I'm disappointed in the new policy," said Cadalzo. "It shows disrespect for the diversity of our community and disrespect for the First Amendment."

The ACLU handles a variety of cases and issues concerning religious freedom. The First Amendment protects the right to practice religion as we wish, a principle that depends on the government demonstrating neutrality towards religion, and not preferring religion over non-religion, thus allowing people to practice their beliefs free from discrimination by government.

"This policy ignores the fact that the borough serves people of many different faiths and undermines the fundamental American value of religious freedom by giving council members a platform to promote their personal religious beliefs," said ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney Frank L. Corrado, of Barry, Corrado, Grassi & Gibson P.C. in Wildwood, New Jersey.

The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, is captioned Cadalzo v. Borough of Point Pleasant Beach, et al., docket number OCN-L-4087-10, and will be heard before Ocean County Assignment Judge Vincent J. Grasso on December 3, 2010, at 10 a.m.

More information about the ACLU's work to defend religious freedom can be found at www.aclufightsforchristians.com

Related Content

ACLU-NJ Challenges Recitation of Lord's Prayer at Council's Meetings

September 20, 2010
Share this:

Newark — Acting on behalf of a borough resident, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey announced today that it has filed suit against Point Pleasant Beach to challenge the borough's longstanding practice of reciting the Lord's Prayer at its municipal council meetings. The ACLU-NJ has also asked the court to issue an injunction halting the practice while the suit is ongoing.

"The Constitution forbids a government entity from showing preference to a particular religion," said Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director. "The prayer recited at Point Pleasant Beach council meetings is one of the most extreme examples we have seen of an explicit preference for Christianity."

After examining public records, the ACLU-NJ learned that the Borough has been reciting the Lord's Prayer - one of the most well-known Christian prayers - at its council meetings for at least six years.

Point Pleasant Beach resident Sharon Cadalzo, who regularly attends council meetings, expressed her concerns about the recitation of the Lord's Prayer to both the current and former mayor. After years of distress over the practice, Cadalzo sought the ACLU-NJ's help to file a complaint against the practice.

"People of all faiths and beliefs should feel welcome at public meetings," said Cadalzo. "It's a matter of fairness. No member of the community should feel that their beliefs exclude them from public life."

"Beginning a municipal council meeting with a prayer rooted in just one religious tradition not only violates the state constitution, but also divides the community," said ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney Frank L. Corrado, of Barry, Corrado, Grassi & Gibson P.C. in Wildwood, New Jersey.

The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, is captioned Cadalzo v. Borough of Point Pleasant Beach, et al., docket number L-3409-10, and is before Ocean County Assignment Judge Vincent J. Grasso.

Related Content

ACLU-NJ Celebrates 50 Years on the Front Lines of Freedom

June 16, 2010
Share this:

Newark, N.J. - For five decades, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has been a gale force in the most critical social debates of our time and a vigilant guardian of civil rights for all.

In June, the ACLU-NJ will mark the 50th anniversary of its founding and celebrate its standing as one of the largest and most active affiliates in the nation. Created to counter the growing pressures on civil liberties in the state, the affiliate's first official meeting took place on the night of June 16, 1960. Since its start, the affiliate, which has continued to keep its headquarters in Newark, has seen its membership multiply nearly 10-fold, from 1,600 people to more than 15,000.

"We believe that the liberties in the Bill of Rights belong to every American, to all the people in New Jersey regardless of their political beliefs, race, religion or national origin," ACLU-NJ founder and longtime President Emil Oxfeld said in the original press release announcing the formation of the state's affiliate. "We believe these freedoms must be exercised if democracy in our state is to grow and thrive."

Oxfeld went on to list issues that desperately needed attention at the time - due process, racial discrimination, the separation of church and state, and freedom from censorship - all principles the ACLU still defends daily.

"While some of the issues raised in our cases over the years seem archaic by today's standards, many haven't changed at all," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs, who has led the affiliate since 1999, including during the biggest membership spike in its history. "The law has advanced remarkably in areas like women's rights, lesbian and gay rights, and safeguarding personal privacy, but with issues like free speech, police practices and religious freedom, no fight ever stays won."

"The ACLU of New Jersey has been a leader in the crucial civil liberties battles of our time," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the national ACLU. "While each new era brings a wave of assaults on freedom, the ACLU of New Jersey responds swiftly and decisively, protecting the rights of all Garden State residents. It has proven its value on the American political landscape."

Since opening its doors and springing into action - its first official undertaking was commending the Clifton Library's stance against banning books like Lady Chatterley's Lover - the ACLU-NJ has doggedly worked for justice and equality in New Jersey.

In its first decade the ACLU-NJ took strong action following the 1967 Newark Rebellion. Staffers took to the streets in the aftermath, painstakingly cataloguing police abuses to the ACLU-NJ would refer to in its demands for reform. The New Jersey affiliate also emerged even more progressive than the national ACLU, becoming one of the first state affiliates to take a stand against the Vietnam War.

Since those early years, the ACLU-NJ has grown into one of the country's largest and most active state affiliates, with a record of milestones that has earned it a role on the national stage. Among its accomplishments, the ACLU-NJ:

  • Defended the rights of women in schools, from a tennis star (represented by Ruth Bader Ginsburg) who won the right to play on the high school boys' tennis team, to the Princeton student who turned its Ivy League all-male eating clubs co-ed.
  • Blocked a bill requiring a "one-minute period of silence" for prayer in public schools in 1983.
  • Defended 12 motorists who had been racially profiled on the New Jersey Turnpike in the late 1990s.
  • Propelled New Jersey to become the first state in the nation to grant equal standing to gay and lesbian couples jointly adopting in 1997.
  • Successfully challenged the state's ban on late-term abortion in 1998 and a law requiring parents to sign off on a minor's abortion in 2000.
  • Challenged secret detentions and organized locally, fending off attempts to chip away at individual rights following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
  • Defeated local laws written to exclude immigrants from housing, won humane working conditions for immigrants, and helped enforce the rights of young immigrants to attend public school.
  • Established stronger First Amendment protections in schools and malls, as well as developments run by homeowners associations.

The ACLU-NJ is celebrating the clients, attorneys, leaders and volunteers - many involved in the cases highlighted above - who have built its legacy, from its founders to its future. The stories of these 50 Faces of Liberty can be found at the ACLU-NJ website, http://www.aclu-nj.org

"Society has changed dramatically since our founding, but we've never lost the fire that fuels the ACLU's advocacy," Jacobs added. "We can't always predict what challenges lie ahead for liberty in a changing world, but whatever they are, the ACLU stands ready to defend the fundamental rights of ordinary Americans."

The year-long commemoration will culminate November 4 at the NJ Freedom Fest: A night of laughter and liberties, hosted by comedian Jimmy Tingle and featuring faces from the ACLU past and present, to be held at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick.

Pentecostal Minister Can Now Preach in Prison

November 29, 2009
Share this:

Pentecostal Minister Can Preach In Prison Following ACLU Lawsuit

TRENTON — Prompted by an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, state prison officials in New Jersey have agreed to restore the right of a devout Christian prisoner to preach at weekly worship services and teach Bible study classes.

Under the terms of a settlement agreement, Howard Thompson, Jr., an ordained Pentecostal minister, will once again be allowed to preach in prison, a practice banned two years ago without any warning or justification.

"The decision by prison officials in New Jersey to allow Mr. Thompson to resume practicing his faith is a welcome acknowledgement that religious freedom in this country extends to all," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The ban on prisoner preaching was clearly at odds with the law and the American value of religious liberty, and this decision was long overdue."

Thompson had preached at weekly worship services at the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) for more than a decade when, in 2007, prison officials issued a blanket ban on such preaching by inmates, even when done under the direct supervision of prison staff. In response, the ACLU and the ACLU of New Jersey filed a lawsuit on Thompson's behalf last December, arguing that the ban unconstitutionally infringed upon Thompson's right to freely practice his religion. The lawsuit named NJSP Administrator Michelle R. Ricci and New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner George W. Hayman as defendants.

Since entering NJSP in 1986, Thompson has been an active member of the prison's Christian community, preaching at Sunday services, teaching Bible study classes and founding the choir. His preaching never caused any security problems. Indeed, the prison's chaplaincy staff had actively supported and encouraged Thompson, believing that he was a positive influence on his fellow inmates.

"The ban prevented me from responding to my religious calling to minister to my fellow inmates, something I had done honestly, effectively and without any incident for years," said Thompson. "All I have ever wanted was to have my religious rights restored so that I could continue working with men who want to renew their lives through the study and practice of their faith."

Ordained in October 2000 during a service at NJSP overseen by the prison's chaplain, Thompson sincerely believes it is his religious calling and obligation to preach his Pentecostal faith and has always been willing to do so under the full supervision of NJSP staff.

"The right to freely express religious viewpoints without the fear of repercussions is one of Americans' most fundamental constitutional rights," said Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "It is gratifying to see prison officials in our state take that constitutional obligation seriously."

The legal team for Thompson included Mach and Heather L. Weaver of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and Barocas and Nadia Seeratan of the ACLU of New Jersey.

A copy of the settlement agreement is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion-belief/thompson-v-ricci-et-al-settlement-agreement

A copy of the ACLU's complaint on behalf of Thompson is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/prison/restrict/37953lgl20081120.html

Additional information about the ACLU of New Jersey is available online at: http://www.aclu-nj.org

The lawsuit was just the latest in a long line of ACLU cases defending the fundamental right to religious exercise, a more expansive list of which is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/defendingreligion

ACLU Protects Prisoner's Religious Liberty

December 9, 2008
Share this:

State Prison Officials Prevent Ordained Pentecostal Minister from Preaching

TRENTON, NJ - The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of New Jersey today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a New Jersey prisoner, an ordained Pentecostal minister, who is asking the state to respect his religious freedom by restoring his right to preach.

Howard Thompson Jr. had preached at weekly worship services at the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) for more than a decade when prison officials last year issued, without any reason, a blanket ban on all preaching by inmates, even when done under the direct supervision of prison staff.

"Ours is a country where people are free to express their religious viewpoints without having to fear repercussions," said Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "The New Jersey State Prison may not deny its prisoners their most basic constitutional rights."

Since he entered NJSP in 1986, Thompson has been an active member of the prison's Christian community, participating in and preaching at Sunday services and other religious events, teaching Bible study classes and founding the choir. His preaching has never caused any security incidents, and the prison's chaplaincy staff has actively supported Thompson and encouraged him to spread his deeply held message of faith.

But in June 2007, prison officials banned all prisoners from engaging in preaching of any kind, without any warning or justification -- which they still have not given.

"I have a religious calling to minister to my fellow inmates, and I've done so honestly, effectively and without incident for years," Thompson said. "All I want is to have my religious liberty restored and to be able to continue working with men who want to renew their lives through the study and practice of their faith."

According to the lawsuit, which names NJSP Administrator Michelle R. Ricci and New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner George W. Hayman as defendants, Thompson first preached a service at NJSP over a decade ago, when he relieved the former Protestant chaplain, who had been unable to lead a scheduled service due to illness.

During the next decade, before he was ordained as a Pentecostal minister, Thompson periodically preached at Sunday services, taught Bible study classes and participated in and led the prison choir he founded. During these years, Thompson received his call to ordained ministry and to preaching and leading others in worship, study, and prayer.

"Prisoners do not forfeit their fundamental right to religious liberty at the prison gate," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The prison's absolute ban on inmate preaching clearly violates the law and Mr. Thompson's right to practice his faith."

Thompson, ordained in October 2000 during a service at NJSP overseen by the prison's chaplain, sincerely believes it is his religious calling and obligation to preach his Pentecostal faith and is willing to do so under the full supervision of NJSP staff.

This lawsuit is the latest in a long line of ACLU cases defending the fundamental right to religious exercise, a complete list of which is available online.

In 2007, the ACLU of Rhode Island prevailed in a lawsuit challenging a similar restriction on prisoner preaching, successfully overturning a statewide ban and restoring the plaintiff prisoner's right to preach during weekly Christian services.

Read Howard Thompson's complaint and preliminary injunction brief online.

Learn about the ACLU Program on the Freedom of Religion and Belief and the ACLU-NJ online.