Freedom From Religion Foundation issue warning about baptisms at Crawford County Jail

Foundation issues warning to Crawford County Sheriff’s Office

The Crawford County jail, the detention center at 4235 Alma Highway in Van Buren, is shown in this March 2021 file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Saccente)

VAN BUREN -- The Freedom From Religion Foundation is objecting to the baptism of 38 detainees in the Crawford County Jail and the Sheriff's Office promoting the service on its Facebook page.

The foundation issued a warning to the Sheriff's Office. The April 24 Facebook post concerning the service has been removed.

Annie Laurie Taylor, foundation co-president, said the Sheriff's Office should not be hosting, promoting or celebrating baptisms. She described the activity as one of the most egregious violations when it comes to the separation between religion and government.

A screenshot of the Facebook post -- provided by the foundation in a news release -- states the Sheriff's Office hosted Kibler Baptist Church as "38 incarcerated Men and Women accepted Jesus Christ behind bars" on April 23. The post also included the following Bible verse: "Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in the newness of life. -- Romans 6:4."

Taylor said jail inmates are a captive audience and some may feel they have no choice but to agree to be baptized to garner favors from the sheriff.

"It's not appropriate in any way, shape or form," she said.

Crawford County Sheriff Daniel Perry said their attorney advised them not to comment on the matter because of a possible lawsuit.

Perry did say no one is being forced to get baptized or be part of a religious ceremony. Churches come into the jail for the religious programs, he said.

The foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wis., that aims to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Taylor said there are polls that state most people in jail are already religious in some fashion, so she questioned the need for 38 people to be baptized in the Sunday service. She also questioned whether it's hygienic to baptize 38 people in what she called "the dunking pool."

Taylor said there's never been a case before the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the issue because the government can't coerce citizens to be baptized.

"The government can't take sides on religion, and this is the government really taking sides," she said.

Taylor was critical that one Baptist church was involved in the service. She asked what if an inmate were Catholic or a non-believer and put on the spot about being baptized.

"It's exactly what our government can't do," Taylor said.

Christopher Line, staff attorney for the foundation, wrote a three-page letter dated May 17 to Perry, in which Line expressed concern about "multiple constitutional violations" occurring in the Sheriff's Office.

Line requested Perry to "inform us of the steps you are taking to rectify these constitutional violations so that we may inform our complainants."

Taylor said the foundation is waiting on a response from the Sheriff's Office. She said the Sheriff's Office also can't use its official Facebook page to promote the religious service.

Taylor said the foundation is willing to purse legal action if the Sheriff's Office continues with the activity.

She said the Sheriff's Office has to accommodate religious requests by inmates within reason, but that is not bringing in one church to the jail.

"This is not an accommodation," Taylor said. "This is the establishment of religion. It has to stop."

Capt. Nolan Ake with the Washington County Sheriff's Office said the jail has a volunteer chaplain program. He said the chaplains are not Sheriff's Office employees.

The chaplains put on programs like Celebrate Recovery, along with Bible classes and other programs. The chaplains provide inmates with Bibles but also will search out materials for inmates who practice other religions, Ake said.

The chaplains are over any baptisms at the jail, Ake said. The inmates request to be baptized and the issue is between the chaplains, inmates and their religion, Ake said. Sheriff's Office employees are not coercing inmates to be baptized nor are they involved in the decision-making process, Ake said.

The Benton County Sheriff's Office has a chaplain division which provides spiritual support for inmates, according to the Sheriff's Office's website. The chaplain division also includes a team of volunteer jail ministers who hold church services for those incarcerated. The ministers represent the Christian faith as well as other religions, according to the website.

A Jan. 15 post on the Benton County Sheriff's Office's Facebook page announced 32 men and women had been baptized at the jail.

Holly Dickson, executive director of ACLU of Arkansas, said the First Amendment and the Arkansas Constitution, as well as civil rights laws, guarantee the right to religious belief and expression and that the government neither prefers religion over nonreligion nor favors particular faiths over others.

"These dual protections work hand in hand, allowing religious liberty to thrive and safeguarding both religion and government from the undue influences of the other," Dickson said. "People detained in jails retain rights to faith, worship and religious exercise, and to be free from religious coercion from the government. As with other rights, however, jail and prison officials too frequently violate the religious liberty of people in prisons and jails."