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Government & Politics

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Prison worker told to lose Bible

21-year veteran who kept book on his desk says he is being persecuted

By LEE WILLIAMS The News Journal April 9, 2008

William Parker, the kitchen manager of the Webb Correctional Facility, claims he is being persecuted by Department of Correction officials for his Christian beliefs and for having a Bible on his desk, which prison officials ordered him to remove from the facility.

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Parker's supervisor, Food Service Director Emanuel Walker, in an e-mail sent April 4, ordered Parker to "remove all religious materials from the facility. Do not return them to the facility in the future. This is a directive you are expected to comply with it in the future."

Walker included a picture of the Bible with the e-mail sent to Parker and two shift lieutenants. Two religion books, which Parker said are not his, are also visible in the photo.

"They staged the photo," Parker claimed. "It's my Bible, but the books belong to someone else."

Parker, 45, who started in the Department of Correction as a prison guard 21 years ago, serves three hot meals to the 100 inmates at the Webb Correctional Facility. Lately, he's been arriving at 4 a.m.

There is a Bible on his desk, Parker admitted. It's been there for two years. During the long hours he spends on his computer ordering food, planning menus and arranging schedules, he has glanced at it.

"I may read a paragraph to get some inspiration, some encouragement," he said. "I have prayed for God's will in the matter. If it's meant for me to be able to have a Bible at work, it will happen."

In the e-mail, Walker said he'd received a complaint that Parker had been reading his Bible on duty, but added it "has not been witnessed by any Food Service Management Staff."

Parker doesn't understand how his Bible suddenly became contraband.

"There are Bibles all over the prison," he said. "We had a Bible rack put in the main hallway. It's just an issue that I had one on my desk. I have Muslim co-workers who are allowed to get out their prayer rugs and pray during their shifts."

Parker did as he was ordered and removed the Bible on Tuesday.

"I will comply with your directive, however I feel that my religious rights are being infringed upon at this time, and I will seek legal advice," he said in an e-mail to Walker and other officials.

He said other Department of Correction employees were violating the apparent Bible ban.

"I did see one Bible on the duty officer desk, and one Bible on the lieutenant's desk in the duty office. They appeared to be hardback Bibles that are distributed in the prison," Parker wrote.

No reading on the job

Walker declined to comment for this story. However, he notified his supervisors that he believes his rights were violated by Parker's protestations.

"This harassment needs to stop," Walker told his boss Michael Knight, Correctional Food Services administrator for the department, in an e-mail sent Tuesday.

"Please look into whatever steps need to be taken to address this issue with FS3 Parker," Walker wrote. "I will be lodging an official complaint regarding my rights being violated by no later than this afternoon."

Knight said he had "not been advised of the situation. Until I find out further, I will not be able to say anything more."

Elizabeth Neal, acting warden at Webb, said no one has been disciplined for reading a Bible at the prison.

The issue, she said, is reading on duty.

"I would not want a Bible or a novel read by any employee while engaged in performance of their duty," Neal said. "Having a Bible on the premises does not rise to that level of concern."

Neal said she does not discriminate against Christians at the prison.

"Absolutely not, or Muslims or anybody else -- absolutely not," she said.

Correction Commissioner Carl Danberg, who learned of the situation after The News Journal began investigating Parker's claims, said Walker's order to remove the Bible "will be rescinded and modified and reissued to make it clear that the issue is not the content of the reading material, but the behavior."

"The memo was inartfully worded and we will take care of the problem," Danberg said. "Individuals who have a responsibility to supervise inmates are not expected to be reading on duty. We will address the substantive issue of reading on the job."

Parker, Danberg said, will be allowed to bring his Bible back to work, "provided he does not read on the job."

Drewry Fennell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, said religious materials are allowed in the workplace.

"The Constitution also protects people's right to express their religion, including at the workplace," Fennell said.

John W. Whitehead is president of The Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit conservative legal organization known for defending civil rights, especially religious liberties.

"The state, when they do this, is violating the Civil Rights Act and the Constitution," Whitehead said.

The issue is also one of equal rights, Whitehead explained. If other employees are allowed to read other material, Parker should be allowed to read his Bible.

As to whether his staffers bring nonreligious magazines into prisons, peruse unofficial Web sites or read and send personal e-mails at work, Danberg said, "I'm sure they do."

Asked why the Bible should be treated differently, he said, "It shouldn't be."

"I don't think this is an issue that requires a systemswide response," Danberg said. "To my knowledge, this is an isolated incident."

A 'soldier of the ministry'

When he's not cooking for inmates, Parker utilizes his culinary skills as a volunteer "soldier of the ministry" with the Salvation Army.

He's a member of the Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Team, a food safety instructor, cook and a radio operator on the Salvation Army's emergency communications team.

"We respond to local or national disasters. If there's an apartment fire where people are displaced, I would go and do the cooking," he said. "I ring the bell every Christmas for the army, and my wife and I hold a Christmas Eve Santa event for local poor children where I dress as Santa and the kids get a new toy or toys and a free picture with Santa and a Christmas meal. Last Christmas we had so many toys left over that we donated them to the Spanish Church of the Salvation Army for their Three Kings Celebration."

Parker believes his faith is essential for working in a prison.

"To be a Christian, to me, is really the only way to live in this world," he said. This world is crazy. Where I work is crazy. Unless you have a firm footing, that place will really rock your cage. You've got to be grounded in the Lord."

Contact investigative reporter Lee Williams at 324-2362 or lwilliams@delawareonline.com.

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