Religious Freedom: A Priceless Right

By Dennis Lynd and Ben M. Shropshire

The first Amendment to the Constitution of the United States provides that “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . . .” The Fourteenth Amendment provides that “No state shall make or enforce any laws which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States . . . without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Most citizens of our great nation enjoy freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Constitution, and are grateful for such rights.

A question we would like for you to consider is this: Do all citizens of the United States enjoy freedom of religion? Before you answer this question, put yourself in the following situation, and then think about whether you would be enjoying religious freedom under such circumstances: Suppose that you were not a Christian, but, having learned that you need to be baptized for the remission of your sins, you decide to be baptized. However, the minister of the official state-supported religion of the community in which you live explains to you that it is just is not possible for you to be baptized by immersion; that under the circumstances surely it will not make any difference with God if you are sprinkled instead of being immersed. Finally, after two months of pleading, and only as a result of adverse publicity, the state-supported minister consents, and makes the arrangements for you to be scripturally baptized.

Now that you are a Christian, you would like to share the good news of salvation with others. You would like to have a Bible class so that the one who taught you could also teach others in your community. But the “powers that be” in your community will not allow you to do this. At the very least, instead of having to attend the services of the state-sponsored church, you would like to have the opportunity to assembly on the Lord’s day with other Christians in order to observe the Lord’s supper weekly and to sing without the accompaniment of a mechanical instrument of music. Again, though, the officials of your community refuse to allow you to do this. You would find this situation even more intolerable because of the realization that other religious groups, differing from the state religion, are allowed to worship according to their beliefs, but you are denied the same opportunity.

Undoubtedly you would not be happy in such a situation; but you need not worry about this because it could never happen anywhere in the United States. Right? Wrong! This very situation has happened in our country, and is happening even today. Where? In the prisons of the state of Illinois, and perhaps in other prison systems elsewhere in our country.

Perhaps you feel the situation with inmates in a prison is different; that they lost their rights, including the freedom of religion, when they were convicted and incarcerated. Such is not the case, however. While it is obviously true that a prisoner loses some of his rights, he still retains and is guaranteed by the Constitution certain basic rights-freedom of religion being one of them.

In order to illustrate for you the reality of this problem, that prisoners are being deprived of their right to worship and serve God according to their beliefs, and to appeal to you for help in solving this problem, we want to share the following information with you.

The Story of Edmund Lopes

Edmund Lopes (no. 15286) is an inmate at the Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac, Illinois. At the time Dennis Lynd met Edmund, Edmund was the head of the Protestant Chaplain’s board of deacons in the prision church. In the latter part of March, 1976 Dennis studied with Ed on the subject of baptism and Ed came to realize his need to be immersed into Christ. As a deacon in the Prison Bible Church, he tried to get them to stop using sprinkling for baptism. When the Chaplain continued to sprinkle prisoners, five of the six members of the deacon board left the Protestant Chaplain’s program. This was the beginning of many problems for Ed in his continuing differences with the chaplaincy of the prison.

On April 1, 1976, Edmund Lopes was removed from the prison population, and placed in segregation on a bogus disciplinary ticket. On April 2, a lawyer accompanied Dennis Lynd to the prison for the specific purpose of checking on this action by prison officials. The attorney was not allowed to enter the Correctional Center despite his protests. While in “seg,” Edmund was encouraged to return to the Chaplain’s faithful fold. By this time, however, Edmund was beginning to see that the spiritual battle lines had been drawn.

Due to adverse publicity, the prison administration was forced into allowing Edmund to be baptized on May 7, 1976. Concerning this, Ed later wrote:

“It took me two months after I was totally convicted of my need for baptism to finally get immersed for the remission of my sins. During that period, or any period before that, had this vessel of human clay died, I would have gone to hell. My brothers and sisters, that very thought terrifies me when I think of how close I had come to hell’s doors had not God been merciful enough to extend the time to me. I pleaded, I begged to be baptized. I asked every official in here from the wardens to ministers, to state officials, and to the Head Chaplain in Springfield. I was given one excuse after another. ‘We are looking into it’ ‘God knows you mean well, but He is teaching you patience.’ ‘We don’t have the facilities.'”

Edmund’s baptism turned out to be a very private affair, with the immersion taking place in the whirlpool of the prison hospital.

Five days later, on May 12, a mobile-baptistry was rolled into the prison and the Protestant Chaplain immersed fifteen inmates into the chilly waters. This was largely the results of the efforts and influence of Edmund Lopes. A newspaper article which appeared at the time in the Bloomington Pantagraph stated that the baptistry “was parked near the basketball courts of the prison Wednesday because there had been a swelling of fundamental Christianity inside the prison walls recently-fundamentalism which holds that a person is not properly baptized until he has been totally immersed in water.”

Two years have now gone by since these events transpired. During this period of time, Brother Lopes and others have requested the opportunity to study in a class in the prison with Dennis Lynd. Their repeated requests have all been denied. Also, they have tried to gain the right to worship according to the New Testament pattern in their own services, apart from the prison chaplain’s services. Even though other groups have been given this privilege, so far their efforts have not been rewarded with success.

During this same period of time, some inmates, wanting to be baptized for the remission of their sins, have been frustrated by the prison system. One man had to wait six months in order to be baptized, and only then after the prison chaplain had tried to persuade him not to be baptized by telling him that baptism is not necessary for salvation. When this inmate was being baptized, the Chaplain disrupted the service by loud and boisterous talking and other offensive behaviour. Another inmate informed prison officials of his desire to be baptized, but after being frustrated for about six months in his attempts, he finally gave up, deciding to wait until he was to be released from prison.

Gospel preachers have experienced considerable difficulties and harrassment in trying to gain admission to the Pontiac prison, largely the result of the fact that churches of Christ do not have any formal licensing or ordination procedures. Several preachers have presented adequate documentation to prison officials confirming their status as gospel preachers, but these were not accepted. The prison chaplaincy has equivocated several times about exactly what is required, and has been inconsistent in allowing some in on the basis of a certain procedure, while refusing others on the same basis.

Menard Prison in Chester, Illinois

Although these abridgments of religious freedom at the Pontiac Correctional Center seem particularly severe, it is not the only prison in Illinois where religious freedom has been hindered, and even denied. Sam Draper, a faithful gospel preacher who works with the church of Christ in Chester, Illinois, has been visiting and talking with inmates and conducting classes in the Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois for over two years. During this time, about sixteen men have obeyed the gospel, having been baptized for the remission of their sins. Brother Draper has not had any particular difficulties gaining admittance to the prison, and after conducting studies with inmates in the visitation room for awhile, he was even allowed to conduct a class in a private room, with as many as 15 to 20 men present at times. Sometimes it has seemed that the men who desired to attend the class have been hindered from doing so by prison officials, but Brother Draper has not experienced any particular problems with baptizing those he has taught, as usually only a few days delay (occasioned by security regulations) has been required. The greatest problem has been the unwillingness of the prison chaplain to make available the opportunity for him to conduct services in the prison on the Lord’s days for those whom he has taught and baptized. The prisoners and Brother Draper have requested such a service, but their requests have all been denied up to the present time, in spite of the fact that other groups are given this right. The only alternative open to these prisoners is to attend the services conducted by the chaplain in which instrumental music is used and in which they do not have the opportunity to observe the Lord’s supper weekly. Obviously, it is not right to expect them to do this.

What Is Being Done about This?

Edmund Lopes at the Pontiac prison, Jerry Jarvis, and Ronald Jones at the Menard prison-all our brethren in Christ-have filed suit in federal court against Governor Thompson and the Illinois Department of Corrections on the grounds that they have been denied their religious freedom. This has been done only after every possible effort in going “through the channels” to gain their religious freedom has been tried to no avail. This suit, if it is successful, could have far-reaching consequences for good: (1) It will provide our brethren in the prisons of Illinois the opportunity to worship according to the teachings of the New Testament; (2) It will guarantee them and gospel preachers the opportunity of conducting Bible classes inside the prison in order to edify those already baptized, and to teach others: (3) It will remove the unreasonable delays for those wanting to be baptized; and (4) It could possibly do the same thing for inmates in prisons in other places in the United States where the same kind of problems are possibly being encountered by brethren.

Brother Elliot Ozment, a faithful brother in Christ, a gospel preacher, and an attorney associated with the Crawford, Ozment and Bolin law firm in Nashville, Tennessee, has committed himself and his law firm to take this case, and to pursue it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, if necessary. He believes the case against the State of Illinois is a very good one, and shares with us in the belief that this is a very important and vital cause in which all who are members of the body of Christ should be interested.

Your Help Is Needed

Such a law suit is expensive, at the very least. The prisoners are unable to pay anything at all toward the costs of the suit, and they will not be expected to do so. The Crawford, Ozment and Bolin law firm is donating its services and time used for this suit at no charge to anyone. Realistically, their contribution could probably be valused at $15,000.00. However, since so many of us have an interest in the success of this suit, it would not be right to expect, nor to allow, them to pay for the “out-of-pocket” expenses incurred in the course of their service in behalf of this suit. It has been estimated that about $5,500.00 will be needed to meet such expenses as travel, telephone, motel, etc.

Our purposes in writing this article is to gain your interest in the case, and to ask you to help us with these expenses. We need to raise this money immediately. An accounting will be made of all money received, and any surplus not used will be returned. We are soliciting help from individual Christians only; any money received from congregations will not be accepted. Will you help us? If you can and will, please make your check payable to the “Lopes-Lynd Fund,” and mail it to :Mr. Allen Roth, 802 North Mill, Pontiac, Illinois 61764. If you desire any further information on this matter, you may contact either of us: Dennis Lynd, 707 E. Timber Street, Pontiac, Illinois 61764, or Ben M. Shropshire, 7222 North Hanley Road, Hazelwood, Missouri 63042.

Brethren, we strongly urge you to help us in this good work.

Truth Magazine XXII: 29, pp. 474-476
July 27, 1978