Monday, May 28, 2012

Ousted after demanding wine for Mass, jail chaplain claims rights were violated

The Rev. Monsignor Ed Lofton, a longtime chaplain at Charleston County's jail and priest at St. Theresa the Little Flower Catholic Church in Summerville, says his religious freedoms were violated when the jail's administrator, Mitch Lucas, refused to let him use one ounce of wine for himself, not inmates, during celebrations of the Eucharistic rite.For a quarter century, Monsignor Ed Lofton has served as one of 86 volunteer chaplains at the Charleston County jail. Bringing calm to inmates and jailers alike is considered essential to his mission.

But carrying wine into a facility where alcohol is labeled as contraband hasn’t come without controversy. He has fought and won that battle before.

For 15 years, he has consumed 1 ounce of sacramental wine during Mass without incident. Inmates partake only in the bread.

But this week he lost a fight.

Chief Deputy Mitch Lucas, the jail’s administrator, has told Lofton to replace the wine — brought to the jail in a TSA-approved container designed for holy water — with grape juice.

He booted the chaplain Tuesday after he refused to do so.

Lucas said the move was necessary because Lofton had threatened to sue on the basis of a civil-rights violation. He didn’t want the chaplain to continue visiting the jail and “gathering evidence” for a court claim, Lucas said.

The action has denied inmates a First Amendment right and a religious rite that’s “at the heart of what the Catholic Church is all about,” Lofton said. He added that he would ask for Lucas’ firing during a meeting today with Sheriff Al Cannon.

“They pull this on me after I’ve been doing this for years,” said Lofton, who leads St. Theresa the Little Flower Catholic Church in Summerville. “It’s pretty bad that I have to fight for something the Constitution allows. But this is religious freedom, and I’ll fight for it again.”

The rules

Policies and laws governing sacramental wine in prisons vary.

Lucas, who has headed the detention center for seven years, contended that alcohol always has been banned in every form and that Lofton never used wine until recently, a claim that Lofton equated to blasphemy.

Neither of them knows why the issue suddenly came to a head this week, when the two wrangled verbally. Words were exchanged, and the quarrel ended with Lucas ordering the chaplain to leave and relinquish his badge.

“I understand what his argument is,” Lucas said. “But it’s contraband. There are security concerns for not allowing alcohol in the jail.”

The policy from the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office limits foods and liquids not produced by the jail’s canteen, and regards alcohol as a dangerous combustible.

Guidelines allow religious expression unless the practice disrupts the facility or endangers people in it.

An exception for religious wine isn’t apparent.

Unlike the county’s rules, the S.C. Department of Corrections’ regulations specifically allow wine because it’s “required by church law.” During Mass, only a priest consumes it.

“Each warden has the ability to say yes or no (for safety reasons),” said John Barkley, a state corrections spokesman. “But in our policy, it’s allowed in controlled amounts” of 1 or 2 ounces.

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, did not want to comment until the case is more thoroughly examined.

In national publications, the ACLU has supported freedom of worship among inmates, citing U.S. Supreme Court decisions that say jailers should accommodate faith-based diets.

Justices wrote in the 2002 decision Levitan v. Ashcroft, for example, that a prison regulation can impinge on inmates’ constitutional rights only if it has legitimate correctional value.

Maria Aselage, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Charleston, declined to comment on Lofton’s plight. Speaking generally, she said wine cannot be substituted.

“Wine is essential,” she said. “Jesus used bread and wine at the Last Supper.”

‘Equitable’ approach

Lucas is baffled by the issue and has lost sleep over it, he said. He had planned to contact attorneys to get a clearer picture of the law.

But the problem already has tarnished an otherwise positive relationship he has had with Lofton for many years, he said.

Allowing alcohol inside his jail, however, would open up the facility to others claiming a right to introduce contraband, he said. On such a slippery slope, Lucas wouldn’t rule out inmates asking for “peyote or sweat lodges.”

“We’re going to be equitable no matter what the faith is,” Lucas said. “There are other faiths that may want to do something that would violate security issues, and we would not allow them to do that.”

On Wednesday, Lofton walked through his Dorchester Road church, pointing out a 400,000-piece mosaic that he said is the largest in South Carolina. 

Lofton, 66, talked of his past as a reserve police officer and that he has logged more than 3,000 hours in a patrol cruiser.

“I saw so much hatred and violence on duty,” he said. “I knew there had to be a better way, so I became a priest. I promised that I would always try to bring peace to that jail, and now I can’t.”

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