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Can I Get a Witness? Prisoner Preacher Regains Right to Preach

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on December 02, 2009 12:55 PM

According to an ACLU press statement released November 30, ordained Pentecostal preacher and life-time guest of the New Jersey penal system, Howard Thompson, Jr., can once again minister to his flock. The ACLU and prison officials reached an agreement which restores the First Amendment rights of the prison preacher -- specifically, his right to preach, teach bible classes and lead the choir as he has done for so many years. 

Thompson began serving his 30 years to life sentence for murder in 1986. Since that time, he was always an active "member of the prison's Christian community." His preaching, done with the support of the prison chaplin, never caused any security problems. Thompson's weekly sermons continued for over 10 years until 2007, when prison officials imposed a blanket ban on preaching by prisoners, even when done under the supervision of security staff.

The New Jersey branch of the ACLU filed a suit on Thompson's behalf (Thompson v. Ricci) in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, naming NJSP Administrator Michelle R. Ricci and New Jersey Dept. of Corrections commissioner George W. Hayman as defendants. The resulting agreement allows Thompson to resume his religious activities under appropriate supervision. And, although First Amendment rights have returned to this corner of the NJ prison system, freedom from censorship has not. Under the agreement, all sermons and bible lessons must first be approved by the chaplin or an approved volunteer.

Nonetheless, the Rev. Thompson is pleased. "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," he said.


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