Atheist Group Protests Prisoners’ Gift for Pope Francis

Group: Prison system ‘appears to be showing impermissible favoritism to one religion’

Pope Francis / AP
September 10, 2015

An atheist group claimed that a hand-carved gift made by Philadelphia prisoners for Pope Francis violated the First Amendment in a recent letter.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter to Louis Giorla,Philadelphia’s commissioner of prisons, outlining concerns over prisoners being used to carve, refinish, and upholster the chair for Pope Francis ahead of his visit on Sept. 27. The pope is scheduled to meet with approximately 100 inmates at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

"[The prison system] appears to be showing impermissible favoritism to one religion over all others, and religion over non-religion, by inviting Catholic religious leaders to its facilities and then bestowing gifts on them," Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation’s co-president, wrote in the letter. Gaylor noted that prisoners also made a special chair earlier this year for Charles Chaput, the Archbishop of Philadelphia.

The foundation cited the First Amendment, which, it said, "mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and non-religion."

By inviting the Pope to meet with inmates and presenting him with an expensive gift, the group claimed that the prison is showing favoritism to one religion.

The foundation noted that the prisons are "public-supported" and "not Catholic."

"This is literally a captive audience, being asked to labor to produce something for a sectarian purpose, a purely devotional event, and that is totally inappropriate," Gaylor said in a prepared statement, claiming that it did not matter whether the prisons asked for volunteers for the special project.

Commissioner Giorla did not respond to a request for comment. Warden Karen Bryant referred the Washington Free Beacon to the prison’s public information officer, Shawn Hawes, who did not respond to several requests for comment.

The inmates also plan on giving the pontiff a fruit basket and a handmade plaque with an inscription from Matthew 25:35: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me."

The foundation has also targeted the pope’s visit to New York City, taking issue with the city’s Francis-inspired lottery giveaway. In a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, the group demanded that the city stop the ticket giveaway, which they called an endorsement of "Pope Francis’ sectarian religious message."

Published under: Religion