Maryland prison inmates, churches and the American Civil Liberties Union are protesting new regulations that restrict the practice of religion in all state correctional institutions.
Under the rules, prisoners who register as members of one faith cannot attend the services of another without formally changing their denominational preference. And those who register as "nondenominational" can attend only such services.
A clergy person visiting an inmate cannot take a religious book, such as the Koran, into a visiting room. Religious groups may not meet more than twice a week. And if fewer than four inmates fall into a religious group, volunteers in that group may not hold services, according to a Division of Correction Directive that took effect Oct. 1.
Prison spokesman Scott McCauley said regulations are aimed at standardizing religious services to "afford all religions the same opportunity to worship and study."
But critics say the rules unfairly restrict prisoners to one religious category and prevent them from attending a variety of rehabilitative programs sponsored by different denominations.
Olinda Moyd, vice-president of the ACLU of Maryland and active in prisoners rights groups, said the directives may be technically within the law but are extremely disturbing.
"I do not see this as a healthy step," Ms. Moyd said. "We all know the Department of Corrections is not doing any rehabilitation at all. Since the prisons offer few outlets through structured programs, I think they should let religious groups come in without all these unnecessary restrictions."
The new regulations stem in part from a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Frank A. Kaufman in a 1970s case in which Black Muslims sought religious privileges, such as dietary concessions and a designated area for Islamic prayer.
Judge Kauffman ruled that all religions must receive equal status and protection.
Churches and volunteers say the ruling has been misinterpreted by prison officials and that minority groups, such as the Muslims, can be represented without the widespread restrictions.
The Rev. Ben Murray, director of the Mount Hope prison ministry in Hagerstown, called the changes "private interpretations which say, basically, that volunteer work must be denominational rather than nondenominational."
"I believe that's discriminatory," he said.
The 2-inch thick list of regulations contains "at least 27 areas of concern," Mr. Murray said. "I believe personnel are interpreting them incorrectly because they don't have a full understanding of the ruling," he said.
The Rev. Brad Allison, pastor of the Glen Burnie Evangelical Presbyterian Church, whose church supports prison volunteers, said he is "deeply concerned" that the directives "will harm the ability of the prisons themselves to rehabilitate prisoners."
"I think it's been shown repeatedly that one of the crucial aspects of rehabilitation is the spiritual side of it, and these limitations will hinder volunteers in helping prisoners," he complained.
The volunteers do much more than simply offer religious instruction, said Ms. Moyd. They counsel prisoners with personal problems, share grief over death or AIDS, rejoice at an inmate's ++ success in making parole. They deliver thousands of gifts at Christmas and hold other holiday programs -- all for free.
Mr. Murray's non-profit organization has provided religious education and counseling to inmates for 22 years. Mount Hope conducts services for several hundred prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown and also provides "after-care" housing to 350 ex-offenders, he said.
A volunteer who asked that her name not be used complained that wardens and chaplains shouldn't be checking "to make sure Johnny Jones is only going to the Baptist service and not sneaking out to the Catholics."
Ms. Moyd said that the rules may be legal, but that they restrict religious observance.
And although they don't curtail the practice of religion, they slow the pursuit of religion by making it difficult for inmates with no religious affiliation to explore a new faith. Even the Muslims, whose lawsuit sparked this debate, are upset, she said.
Inmates and volunteers are writing to state legislators, and some inmates are considering filing suit on First Amendment grounds.
Mr. McCauley, the prison spokesman, said the rule "gives Jews and Protestants a broader choice to choose from," as those religions must be broken down into particular sects. He also said that religious groups' visits have been limited, because as more denominations are represented, the prisons will run out of room to hold services.
The ban on religious books in visiting rooms is a security measure, Mr. McCauley said. Non-religious books also are not allowed, because of the potential to conceal contraband, Mr. McCauley said.
But Mr. Allison worried that the prisoners "are losing out."