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Discussing religion, spirituality and values. Amy Umble is the religion reporter for The Free Lance-Star. You can email her at
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Religious Mail at the Jail

Look for a story in tomorrow’s paper, but for now, here are some key details about the latest in the battle over inmate mail and religion:

For years, the Rappahannock Regional Jail stopped inmates from receiving letters cut and pasted from the Internet.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union questioned the policy as unconstitutional censorship.

This week, jail officials responded by revising the policy. Inmates can now receive material from the Web—provided that material is neither pornographic nor gang-related.

The ACLU first questioned the policy after a mother sent letters filled with Bible verses to her son, an inmate at the Stafford County-based jail.

Jail staff cut the religious references out of the letter, prompting ACLU lawyers to write a letter to jail Superintendent Joseph Higgs.

The policy never intended to censor faith, said the jail board’s lawyer, William Hefty.

Had Anna Williams hand-written the Bible verses in her letter, her son could have read them in his jail cell, Hefty said.

The original policy predated Higgs and intended to reduce mail volume and to help jail staff who scan every piece of mail—aside from legal post—sent to inmates.

“It didn’t have to do with religion at all,” Hefty said.

John Whitehead, director of the Rutherford Institute, said many policies which infringe on religious rights don’t actually intend to impact faith.

His group works for religious rights, and Whitehead said group members would have a lot less work if people who work in public institutions had a little more understanding of First Amendment issues.

At the same time, Higgs is quick to assure the jail never intended to keep religion from the inmates. On the contrary, Higgs said the family interactions and mail helps inmates and the jail. He said that since this policy has become public, he’s received many emails accusing him of being against religion.