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The Texas Supreme Court headed down a rocky and seldom traveled road when it recently decided its first significant religious freedom case in more than 10 years. Yet the case’s outcome was equally rare in that it pleases civil libertarians and a religious rights organization. The June 28 decision in David Williams v. Ruth Maree Lara and Michael Huff deals with a religious education unit inside the Tarrant County Jail. Two former inmates, Lara and Huff, sued Williams, the former Tarrant County sheriff, alleging that a religious program he initiated at the jail violated the separation of church and state. In a unanimous 8-0 decision written by Justice Deborah Hankinson, the court found that Williams could not promote a certain religion over others. Williams was defeated as sheriff during last year’s Republican primary election. He could not be located for comment. The religious unit has since been discontinued. “Tarrant County’s operation of the Chaplain’s Education Unit so as to endorse one religion over other religions or nonreligion conveyed the impermissible message that the county preferred the personal religious views of the sheriff and chaplain over other views,” Hankinson wrote. “This official endorsement of religion is, as a matter of law, unconstitutional.” However, the opinion did not prohibit similar non-exclusive religious programs in jails. “Providing moral guidance to inmates is certainly an important mission, and we recognize that hiring a chaplain may be necessary to secure prisoners’ rights under the Free Exercise Clause,” Hankinson wrote. As alleged by the plaintiffs, the controversy arose because Williams’ special unit gave instruction only on a fundamentalist brand of Christianity to the exclusion of other religions. Lara, who is Jewish, and Huff, who is a Jehovah’s Witness, alleged that other religions should be allowed to worship in the jail in the same manner as the Christians in Williams’ “Chaplain’s Education Unit” — also known as the “God Pod.” According to the opinion, to be admitted into the unit, the inmates were required to pass a security clearance, sign an “application and agreement” acknowledging that CEU was “based on orthodox Christian biblical principals” and confirm a willingness to “cooperate fully with the program.” CEU was the only opportunity county jail inmates had for any type of group religious study, the court noted. There was a Tuesday night service for the jail’s general population, but it had to follow the same curriculum as the CEU, the opinion said. Williams began the voluntary program in a separate unit of the jail in 1992 as a way to reduce violence and promote rehabilitation. The plaintiffs alleged that the unit excluded inmates of other faiths. A judge in Fort Worth’s 352nd District Court ruled in the sheriff’s favor on various constitutional issues, but Fort Worth’s 2nd Court of Appeals rejected some of the trial court’s findings in 1999. Attorneys representing the sheriff and Tarrant County argued that the primary function of the unit was to maintain order and no public funds were used in its operation, therefore there was no violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition against using government funds to promote a particular religion. Although the decision was a clear victory for the plaintiffs, a religious rights organization that intervened in the case to protect the rights of prisoners involved in the CEU program also welcomes the case. “It sends a message that it’s OK to have religious programs [in jails] just as long as they don’t have the extreme situation that happened in the God Pod,” says Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of the Plano-based Liberty Legal Institute, which specializes in religious freedom and First Amendment issues. “I think that was the principle of the case, and that principle is fine.” Shackelford and Liberty Legal Institute intervened in the case on behalf of four Tarrant County inmates who participate in the CEU program. Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, also hails the decision. “We think this decision will help us eradicate religious discrimination in prisons,” Harrell says. “It does lend support to our position that prison wardens cannot discriminate among religious beliefs.” IMMEDIATE IMPACT Even though the high court remanded Williams to a Fort Worth trial court for decisions on possible damages and injunctive relief, the decision already has made an impact. Soon after its release, officials with the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department decided to phase out the CEU program, according to Jim Willett, chief deputy at the department. That move may make injunctive relief moot, says Marvin Collins, chief of the appellate section of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office, which represents the sheriff’s department and the county. Collins says he still must review the opinion with new Sheriff Dee Anderson and the Tarrant County Commissioner’s Court before deciding whether to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. “I don’t want anyone to lose their rights to seek further review. I’m not predicting at all that any further relief will be sought,” Collins says. “I’m just trying to be a careful attorney.” Richard Rohan, a partner in Dallas’ Carrington Coleman Sloman & Blumenthal who represents Lara, says he has not discussed with his client whether to press on with the case. The Texas Supreme Court decision allows her to pursue damages under 42 U.S.C. �1983 for violation of her constitutional rights. “Tarrant County put us through a lot of time and litigation. We have been telling them that since 1993,” when the suit was filed, Rohan says. “We didn’t initiate the lawsuit with the intent of recovering monetary damages. But if she’s entitled to them … that’s something we’ll consider pursuing.” Although the high court ruled that the record in the case was not enough to determine whether Huff’s free exercise rights were violated, Laurance “Lanny” Priddy, Huff’s counsel, says he will ask the trial court for damages. “We think that he has damages because he requested that he be given the opportunity to have discussions with other Jehovah’s Witnesses and [sheriff department officials] denied that because that would amount to proselytizing,” Priddy alleges. While religious freedom cases usually are fought in federal courts, Rohan says it is significant that the Texas Supreme Court spoke on the issue. “I think it’s important for [state] courts to recognize these violations and declare them violations,” Rohan says. However, Collins worries that some of the broad language of the opinion may be used by other plaintiffs to bring suit anytime government money is used to support a religious endeavor — no matter how benign that endeavor may be. In the Tarrant County Jail, the decision actually has renewed an interest in expanding the religious services available to inmates rather than stifling them, Willett says. “If anything, it’s going to mean more services available because it has kind of fired up our volunteer ministers of various creeds and religions,” Willett says. “In the long run, it will end up being better than it ever was.”

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