The Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) will be forced to change some of its religious accommodation policies after a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
According to a DOJ news release, Virginia prisons did not make proper accommodations for group worship, religious diet or religious services. Some of these policies violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, according to the DOJ.
“This settlement will ensure that men and women in VDOC’s custody can practice their religions consistent with their sincerely held beliefs, including through group worship and an appropriate religious diet,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division said in a news release. “We commend the Commonwealth for its willingness to make changes to further its commitment to rehabilitating prisoners and preparing them for reentry into their communities.”
Per the settlement, the VDOC will have to craft new policies that provide proper accommodations. This includes the elimination of a policy that requires a five-person minimum for religious services and activities, the elimination of a policy that would remove a person from a religious diet if he did not pick up a minimum number of common fare meal trays every month and the elimination of a policy that would prevent someone from going to a religious service if he did not regularly attend the service.
According to the settlement, the VDOC must affirm the importance of protecting the religious rights of people in custody. It will also be required to provide training to staff and chaplains regarding the new policies.
“We are pleased that the Commonwealth of Virginia has reached this agreement with the Department involving the VDOC,” G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in the news release. “This settlement makes certain that those in VDOC installations will be able to exercise their religious beliefs, whatever they may be, as guaranteed by the United States Constitution.”
Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications for the Virginia ACLU, told The Center Square via email that this is a positive step, but that everyone will have to watch to make sure it is executed properly.
“We haven’t actually seen the settlement, but terms as described in the justice department’s announcement all seem positive,” Farrar said. “With VDOC, however, the actual execution of these types of matters sometimes doesn’t seem to filter down to the CO level at every institution. We’d also note that it shouldn’t have taken a federal investigation to compel the VDOC to do the right thing and support the religious freedom of people being held in its care.”