The Harper government caused a bit of controversy recently when they decided not to renew the contracts of 49 part time prison chaplains. The problem, one that will likely lead to law suits against the government, is that 18 of Canada’s 19 non-Christian prison chaplains were on that part time list.
For the government the optics on this are terrible. For those looking for hidden agendas it looks like Harper, who recently introduced measures that are sure to dramatically increase the prison population, now wants to insure that they are Christian prisons. This is, no doubt, similar to the arguments that will be made in the courts by religious minorities.
For me though the issue raises an entirely separate concern: In response to critics the government claims that the existing full time chaplains will coordinate the efforts of 2,500 volunteers who currently help to provide religious services to inmates of all faiths.
My question is, why is the government paying for any chaplains of any faith, especially if 2,500 volunteers are ready to help out?
I am sure that there are those in our prisons who could benefit from faith. Making people behave in a certain way when they feel no natural compunction to do so is one of the primary purposes for religion. In the ancient history of humanity, leaders (who knew little of science themselves) needed a way to get an uneducated population to behave themselves. The story that this life is a test which will earn you eternal reward or damnation was, when it was believed, an effective deterrent to violence, theft or rebellion. Assuming that many of the more violent inmates also have limited education, a dash of god could be effective in a few cases. Even that proposition though is debatable given that the majority of inmates already identify themselves as Christian (57%) or at least religious (68%).
As I understand it though, religious freedom should not mean that the government will pay for it. It is a somewhat awkward position for me. I have little patience for people who whine about having to pay for the arts and culture or programs for the poor. Apparently this is my turn to play the role of disgruntled taxpayer. Why is the government funding the religious habits of convicted felons, particularly when there is an army of volunteers ready to do the job. Why not allow religious groups to pay for the “spiritual rehabilitation” of their members? Wouldn’t government dollars be better spent on qualified professionals who can diagnose, evaluate and treat inmates instead of paying someone to pray with them?
My initial reaction was that the Harper governments decision was discriminatory and that the decision should be reversed. However, after looking at the issue a little more closely and hearing the governments defense, it is clear that the discriminatory action should be fixed by going further and doing away with the prison chaplain program altogether.