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The Rev. Ronald Apollo at the flag folding ceremony for his retirement ceremony from the U.S. Air Force in 2017.

The Bureau of Prisons Yields to a Chaplain’s Conscience

The bureau relents in a stalemate over pepper spray.

A prison chaplain put President Donald Trump’s pledge to protect religious freedom to the test and won a longshot fight against the Bureau of Prisons.

The BOP reversed an order requiring the Rev. Ronald Apollo, a military and federal prison chaplain for more than 25 years, to carry pepper spray while on the job. This month, the BOP announced that chaplains will no longer be required to carry the spray.

Apollo is the the head chaplain of FCI Bennettsville, a medium-security federal correctional institute in South Carolina. When the BOP ordered all of its prison workers in medium and higher level security institutions to carry around Oleoresin Capsicum or “O.C.” aerosol spray last year prompted by a federal law that had been passed to keep prison staff safe, Apollo balked saying it violated his religious beliefs. He also said the requirement jeopardized the impartiality he needs to counsel prisoners and win their trust.

Pepper spray, he said, made him appear as if he was working with correctional officers.

Apollo is a member of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, which calls on its members in its bylaws to renounce “the weapons of human strife.” Apollo argues that the spray — similar to what police use to control unruly crowds — is a weapon, a characterization the BOP disputes. Apollo is also a retired military chaplain for the Air Force, where he said he was explicitly prohibited from carrying a weapon or protective equipment, even in combat zones.

The BOP’s policy was prompted by the passage of the Eric Williams Correctional Officer Protection Act of 2015. Williams, 34, was a correctional officer who was stabbed to death by a prisoner in 2013 while working at a high-security federal prison in Pennsylvania. The act directs the BOP to issue O.C. spray to “any officer or employee of Bureau of Prisons who is employed in a prison that is not a minimum or low security prison” and “to such additional officers and employees of prisons as the (BOP) Director determines appropriate.”

Apollo and two chaplains he supervised appealed to FCI Bennettsville’s warden and the Bureau of Prisons repeatedly but ultimately were told that they needed to comply. Unwilling, Apollo was confined to front-office work where he could do managerial tasks but could not meet and counsel inmates.

The Marshall Project detailed this standoff between religious rights and prison safety in September. The Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit litigation, education and policy organization that provides free assistance in cases where it believes religious freedom and Christian values are being violated, saw the story and took up the chaplain’s case.

Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel’s founder and chairman, said he understands that prisons have a duty to protect prisoners and staff but he said there is no evidence chaplains have been endangered by not carrying pepper spray.

The policy “created a barrier of trust and openness with the people they are ministering to,” he said.

In making its case, Liberty Counsel attorneys wrote that the BOP’s own personnel classifications state that chaplains aren’t to participate in firearms training and that “in the event of an actual disturbance the professional skills of a chaplain will be applied in another way.”

“Indeed, the response of a chaplain to an emergency, in the chaplain’s pastoral role, has often resulted in the avoidance of violence, because prisoners trust unarmed chaplains among the inmate population as ‘men of God’ and ‘people of faith,’ and it is almost unheard of for chaplains to be subjected to assault by inmates,” the counsel wrote in a letter in October to the BOP.

Staver said the BOP’s policy violated federal religious protections including the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits the federal government from imposing or implementing a land use regulation “that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person.” The law puts the onus on the government to prove that the policy is necessary and that there aren’t other ways for the government to achieve its goal.

If the BOP was looking to keep chaplains safe, Staver said, they could have offered alternatives that didn’t violate Apollo’s rights such as searching prisoners before they meet with pastoral staff or providing a screened and secure space for meetings.

“It’s the government’s burden to prove that they have looked at every other possible means,” Staver said.

Additionally, Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Oct. 6 issued a 25-page, 20-point memo to all executive departments and agencies emphasizing the importance of protecting religious rights including “the right to act or abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs.” Federal agencies should not burden a person’s exercise of religion unless it can prove that a rule “is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling governmental interest,” Sessions memo stated, highlighting guidelines in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

Apollo said he cried late last year when he was told the BOP would be reversing its decision and that he could go back to work as normal, ending his nine-month ordeal.

“Now we are able to work on a level to do everything we could do before, in the same capacity, exactly how we were doing it before when OC spray was never an issue,” Apollo said. “We still respond to alarms, we still preach, we could counsel and we’re free to go about all areas of the institution like the ministers we were hired to be without any reservations.”

While he had sat in limbo in a front office, unable to counsel prisoners face-to-face, he said he had received emails from prisoners pleading for his counseling, including one who was grieving for a sister who had died. Apollo could only respond with an email and a Bible verse for encouragement.