Federal suit challenges Arkansas sheriff’s posting of religious-based jail rules

Wednesday, July 22, 1998

An Arkansas attorney and a former inmate are trying to stop a county sheriff from incorporating the Ten Commandments in the jail's operating rules.

Jamey Ashford, represented by a Rogers, Ark., attorney, has filed two separate lawsuits against Benton County Sheriff Andy Lee. They allege the posting of the Ten Commandments violates Arkansas' civil rights act and the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment.

Ashford sued Lee in a state court in early April for posting religious-based rules governing inmate behavior. The first 10 rules were the Ten Commandments. Lee then modified the list. Nonetheless, in May the state judge entered a temporary injunction barring Lee from posting the rules, concluding that even the modified version was still based on the Judeo-Christian codes.

Since the temporary injunction, Lee has modified the rules again and Ashford has completed his jail time for a bad-check conviction. Last week the state judge awarded Ashford a dollar and attorneys' fees in his lawsuit. The judge, however, did not say whether Lee's newest version of the jail rules ran afoul of the state's laws or the First Amendment.

However, Ashford's attorney, Doug Norwood, had also filed a lawsuit in May in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, challenging the sheriff's rules as a violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause.

Norwood said the federal lawsuit would be amended to include past and future inmates of the county jail as plaintiffs.

“The sheriff can incarcerate people, but he cannot indoctrinate them with Christianity,” Norwood said. “The bottom line is, I don't want this sheriff to indoctrinate inmates with any religion – and I don't care what the religion is.”

The federal lawsuit will also be amended to challenge Lee's latest rules, Norwood said. The Benton County Detainee Rules now posted are still based on the Ten Commandments. Included are mandates such as “Thou shalt not profane the name of Almighty God,” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Attached to the rules is a warning that if any inmate's violation of the rules creates a breach of peace in the jail, the offender will be placed in solitary confinement and possibly lose other privileges.

Lee, who announced his decision to post the religious code during his re-election campaign, maintained that the rules were needed to ensure jail order and security.

“If you stand and cuss another inmate, it's going to cause security problems in the jail,” Lee told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Nobody's god is going to be cussed in this jail.”

Norwood said Lee's revisions had not altered the pervasive religious nature of the rules and he doubted any revisions ever would.

“Lee was running against a well-known politician who had taken strong stances in favor of religion, and being a populist, Lee responded with posting the religious codes,” Norwood said.

Mike Rainwater, Lee's attorney, said there was nothing unconstitutional in posting jail rules grounded in biblical principles.

“I am all for the separation of church and state,” Rainwater said. “But that does not necessarily mean separation of God and state. I don't believe there is anything inherently wrong with using the Bible as a source for secular rules. Most of our constitutional principles are founded in biblical rules.”

Rainwater also said all of the sheriff's rules were backed up with secular reasoning.

“The sheriff came up with this idea of using the principles of the Ten Commandments to create a framework for articulating and communicating rules of conduct for jail detainees,” Rainwater said. “Those principles do have a direct application to ensuring order and security in the jail.”

As an example, Rainwater said that if inmates can be forced to wear orange flip-flops for security reasons, then they can also be legally prevented from causing disruptions in the jail by disparaging “what the Arkansas Constitution calls the 'Almighty God.'”

Rainwater has filed a motion to dismiss the suit. The federal court has yet to rule on the motion.