AR Briefly

Northwest Arkansas sheriff’s office criticized for baptisms of 38 inmates

By: - May 31, 2023 5:16 pm

A Crawford County church’s baptism ceremony for more than three dozen inmates at the county jail in April drew the attention of a national nonprofit that advocates for the separation of church and state, according to a news release.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has an Arkansas chapter, asked the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office to stop “the proselytization of a captive audience of inmates,” citing an April 24 Facebook post from the sheriff’s office that has since been deleted.

The post said 38 inmates “accepted Jesus Christ behind bars” the previous day, with Kibler Baptist Church representatives administering baptisms. The post included more than 50 photos and a Bible verse from the Book of Romans.

A since deleted screenshot of a Facebook post from the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office on April 24 shows jail inmates and members of Kibler Baptist Church at a baptism ceremony in the jail. (Courtesy of the Freedom from Religion Foundation)

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits government entities, including county jails, from promoting, encouraging or sponsoring any religious message or participation, Freedom From Religion Foundation staff attorney Chris Line wrote in a May 17 letter to Crawford County Sheriff Daniel Perry.

“Government employees can worship, pray, or quote any religious text they wish when acting in their personal capacities,” Line wrote. “But they are not permitted to use the machinery of a government office to advance their personal religion.”

Perry told the Arkansas Advocate that the sheriff’s office does not force or require inmates to participate in anything religious.

“We just allow [churches] to come in and share the word if anybody wants to listen,” Perry said. “If nobody wants to listen, they turn around and go home.”

Kibler Baptist Church is one of “a lot of churches that are involved in” religious outreach to inmates, Perry said.

Line included a public records request in his letter to Perry, asking for “all records related to the organization of, participation in, or advertising of the inmate baptisms and religious programs,” including communications from the sheriff’s office about organizing such events.

Pastor Lee Denton of Kibler Baptist Church did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Perry declined to comment on the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s claims that his office showed religious favoritism and violated the First Amendment.

The foundation has repeatedly found overlaps of church and state in Arkansas, according to its website. Earlier this month, the organization asked the Prescott School District to “quit imposing Christianity on elementary schoolchildren” by leading students in prayer and distributing Bibles.

Like the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office, the Prescott School District deleted the Facebook posts that caught the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s attention.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.