WaPo, Editorially a Proponent of Church/State Separation, Worries About Too Few Muslim Chaplains in Va. Prisons

Those familiar with the Washington Post know that the paper is a staunch defender of a very liberal vision of the separation of church and state. For example, the paper's editorial board was heavily critical of the Supreme Court's Mojave cross ruling.

But when it comes to the supposed dearth of Muslim chaplains at Virginia prisons, Sunday's Metro section went into full hand-wringing mode. "Inadequate Funds for Chaplains," complained a subheader for the page B1 story by staffer Kevin Sieff.

"In Va., most money goes to Protestant clergy," another subheadline for the story "Support limited for Muslims in prison"* lamented.

Of course, it wasn't until paragraph 27 that Sieff noted that "[n]either Catholic nor Jewish chaplains have sought funding from corrections officials." As Sieff explained early in his article, "a 200-year-old interpretation of the state constitution... bars Virginia from doing any faith-based hiring" and "is the only state where prison chaplains are contractors, not state employees." Sure, "Muslim chaplains could visit correctional facilities to minister to Virginia's 32,000 inmates," Sieff explained, "but they received no funds from the state" until a $25,000 grant was given to Muslim Chaplain Services of Virginia last July.

"The department [of corrections] has been living in the past. No other state in the country is so far behind the curve," Sieff quoted the lament of one Larry Coleman of the American Correctional Chaplains Association. Yet nowhere in his 43-paragraph article did Sieff quote a defender of the Old Dominion's approach to prison chaplaincies.

What's more, Sieff presented Virginia policy as an unwitting accomplice in homegrown terrorism. "In the absence of qualified Muslim religious service providers, inmates can become attracted to radical views and the politico-religious messages coming from other inmates," Sieff quoted from a study by terrorism experts at George Washington University and the University of Virginia. 

Of course, volunteer Muslim chaplains who are not on the state payroll may have more credibility as a moderating influence on Muslim inmates than those who may be seen as government stooges by virtue of their affiliation with the state, but Sieff failed to find anyone who would argue that point. 

*The online version's headline is slightly different, "Limited  spiritual support in Virginia prisons as number of Muslim inmates grows"

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is a writer living in New Carrollton, Md.