Sheriff under fire for Kanye West's "church services" in local jails

Kanye West is bringing the gospel to the masses these days and that includes ministering to the incarcerated. You may have seen stories on West’s latest career venture. His latest release, “Jesus Is King” is a gospel-rap album that went to Number One on the Billboard charts when it made its debut.

West was invited by Houston Pastor Joel Osteen to come and be his guest at Lakewood Church, a megachurch that was once the Compaq Center sports arena. The capacity is 16,800. The church was packed for Kanye’s performance. Tickets (free) were gone immediately and traffic was clogged up in the area, as you would expect. An interesting part of the story of Kanye’s trip to Houston that weekend is his unannounced visit to the Harris County Jail. He performed two shows, with a choir – one for men inmates and one for women inmates. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez was excited to welcome him.

West performed for more than 500 inmates, including male inmates at one jail facility, before crossing the street to another for a smaller crowd of female inmates, where they could be seen joining along in worship and prayer.

Jason Spencer, the public affairs director for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, tweeted: “Say what you want about the man. But @kanyewest and his choir brought some light to people who needed it today at the Harris County Jail.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has lodged a complaint. Apparently, Sheriff Gonzalez was a little too excited about West’s appearance.

Gonzalez described Kanye’s surprise appearance as a “church service” in a tweet. That was a bridge too far for FFRF.

A complaint has been lodged and a letter was sent to Sheriff Gonzalez. He crossed the line. FFRF cites the First Amendment. FFRF states in its letter to the sheriff that the Supreme Court has ruled “time and time again” that the Constitution “mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and
between religion and nonreligion.” The letter ends by saying West’s performance, or “church service” was unconstitutional.

In short, this was unconstitutional. You were elected to a secular office and to uphold a secular Constitution. You cannot use that public office to promote your personal religion, even if it happens to be a religion Kanye West shares. This constitutional violation is particularly egregious because it imposed religion on inmates—literally a captive audience—who have a deep and immediate interest in being seen favorably by you and your staff. When you signal that you prefer Christianity to inmates, you tell non-Christian inmates that they would be viewed more favorably if they convert to your preferred religion. It is no excuse that Kayne West is famous. If anything, this makes the violation worse because the captive audience may be more receptive to his message. Too often we see religion assisting the vulnerable as a means of converting the susceptible.

While Christians are vastly overrepresented in the prison population, it is still inappropriate to expose any prisoner to proselytizing, be it through music or a worship service. Now, more than one-quarter of Americans, 26%, are religiously unaffiliated and nearly 30% are non-Christians, either practicing a minority religion or no religion at all. Younger Americans are not just religiously 5 unaffiliated, they are largely atheist or agnostic. A recent survey found that 21 percent of Americans born after 1999 are atheist or agnostic.6

No good deed goes unpunished, right? As far as I know, attendance was not mandatory and none of the prisoners complained about Kanye’s visit. In fact, they were happy, with many moved to tears according to Sheriff Gonzalez. Prison ministry programs are set up all across the country. FFRF, a Wisconsin-based atheist group, requests that the sheriff assure the county “will not organize or promote worship services in the future.” First Liberty Institute responded.

First Liberty Institute, the religious freedom law firm that defended the WWI Memorial Peace Cross at the Supreme Court, slammed FFRF for their “long and shameful history of bullying our schools and city halls” and for now turning to “threatening our county jails.”

“Kanye West visited the Harris County Jail to offer hope and encouragement,” Mike Berry, First Liberty chief of staff, told Fox News. “The last time I checked, you can do that in this country. If every sheriff in America invited Kanye West to visit their jails, we might have less need for jails.”

I don’t see this as a violation of the First Amendment. It looks like a celebrity-style version of prison minstry outreach. The prisoners liked it and appreciated the visit. Kanye West may have done some good that day. It also falls within the work that West and his wife do for prison reform.