I don't know how important religion is to people in prison. I suspect it depends on a multitude of things.
For some, religion might have been what held together a fragile home life. For others it may have been an oppressive force in an already frightening existence. For still others, faith in God might never have entered their minds until they were facing a 20-year sentence for a crime they wished they hadn't committed.
In any case, some might be thinking about faith this week after the federal Conservatives announced they were going to cut chaplain services in prisons.
The cancellation of the programs will, according to the CBC, remove all the part-time chaplains, leaving about 80 full-time chaplains. Whether intended or not, this will leave only one Christian chaplain.
The government stumbled upon this when a Wiccan in B.C. was going to be hired as a prison chaplain. (Yes, of course, we can hear the chuckles now, "only in B.C.")
Needless to say, the minister in charge did not believe a Wiccan chaplain should be on the taxpayers' tab, and he immediately suspended the hiring plan and ordered a review of the whole program. Good for him. While the Wiccan may have triggered the review, a review was certainly in order.
The changes, which will happen in 2013, translate to a $1.6 million savings - not a lot in government budgets. But to the average taxpayer, it's certainly worth saving.
Of course, the first media coverage of the cuts gave the clear impression that other faiths were being targeted and only Christian chaplains protected. It was, of course, not that simple. But, understandably, given religion's emotional side, there were a lot of suggestions that the Conservatives were galloping along on a pre-ordained plan to make Canada a truly Christian country.
I suspect human rights and constitutional lawyers are poring over law books wondering if there's a high-profile case to be made here.
I also suspect that the federal government will have to review how it's hiring full-time chaplains and make a concerted
effort to represent the major faiths.
But, honestly, wouldn't it be better to spend this money on victim services instead?
The total program costs about $6.4 million. That could buy a lot of nonreligious counselling.
I'm sure supporters will argue that chaplains who offer counselling and faith can play a big part in rehabilitation. They could very well be right. But should taxpayers be paying for religious services, however well intentioned, for prisoners?
Personally, I'd rather see religious folks doing voluntary work in prisons.
It strikes me as a better example for prisoners, and, dare I say, a more "Christian" thing to do.
Surely, freedom of religion doesn't extend to taxpayers having to pay for religious services in prison.
Or does it?
Pat Tracy is the editor of the Burnaby NOW newspaper. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PatTracy or email at email@example.com.