VANCOUVER, B.C. (CN) - Non-Christian federal convicts claim in court that Canada's decision to ax part-time contracts of Buddhist, Jewish, Wiccan, Muslim, and Sikh prison chaplains, while keeping Christian chaplains employed, is unconstitutional.
Lead plaintiff Donald Cundell, seven other inmates and the West Coast Prison Justice Society sued the Canadian Attorney General and the Minister of Public Safety in B.C. Supreme Court.
The prisoners claim the government made the decision after a September 2012 system-wide review of the Correctional Service of Canada's part-time chaplaincy contracts.
The review caused the public safety minister to conclude "that all part-time chaplaincy contracts across Canada should be canceled based on the Minister's determination that it is not in the public interest to expend taxpayer funds on such services," the complaint states.
Meanwhile, the prisoners say, there "remain numerous full-time chaplains and three part-time chaplains in British Columbia, all of whom are Christian faith."
As of this month, the decision "has eliminated all minority faith chaplains in British Columbia and will leave only two minority faith chaplains in all of Canada."
The complaint delves into each plaintiff's history and details how the chaplaincy services have been essential to cope with prison life.
Plaintiff Charles White says he became a Buddhist in prison while serving time for a previous offense. He is in prison now for breaching a supervision order.
White has bipolar disorder and claims that his faith gave him "a feeling of belonging for the first time in his life. He has learned compassion and not to be self-centered in his actions."
He claims he has reconnected with his family with the help of his spiritual practice, but "now feels a deep sense of loss and anxiety without a spiritual leader."
Peter Ashton, serving a life sentence, is also a Buddhist. He claims to be the first prisoner in North America to "receive monastic vows" with the help of a Buddhist prison chaplain, and says that without his faith he would be dead by now.
According to the complaint, "he was a very violent person before he found Buddhism. Now rather than lashing out, he looks inwards when dealing with frustration. Mr. Ashton now describes himself as a mellow, nonviolent man who is a good influence on other prisoners."
Plaintiff Gagandeep Rakhra claims he drifted away from his Sikh faith after falling in with the wrong crowd. Now serving a 5-year sentence, he says the Sikh prison chaplain helped him learn about his faith due to his limited understanding of Punjabi, and helped him deal with the racism in prison.
Plaintiff Donald Cundell says he has been in prison for "his entire adult life." He says he "forged a close spiritual bond" with a Wiccan priestess who formerly had a contract to "provide Pagan-based chaplaincy services to federal prisoners throughout British Columbia."
"Cundell's spiritual growth has allowed him to begin atoning for his crime and given him a level of self-confidence and strength that he lacked as a youth," the complaint states. "He no longer has [the priestess'] regular guidance, support or spiritual ministry to help him progress in his rehabilitation and keep him from becoming negative and isolationist."
Plaintiff Douglas Guyatt also says he is a practicing Wiccan. He used to be a Christian, but during his 18 years in prison, he says, he began learning to "live by the tenets of Wiccan spirituality, including: the empowerment and equality of all people; respect for self, others and the earth; and, the need to face adversity with serenity and patience."
Jamie Cliff, a Muslim, claims he was involved in gangs before being sent to prison for life. He says that turning to Islam has helped him control his temper and live a more positive lifestyle. The Muslim group at his prison was refused permission to meet regularly, though the prison regularly allows a Christian Bible study group to meet, according to the complaint.
Timothy Nome, an Orthodox Jew, whose indeterminate sentence for assault causing bodily harm is under appeal, is in segregation in a New Brunswick prison. He credits the religious services of rabbis with saving his life and says he would have committed suicide without the help he got until his segregation.
"In the absence of a Jewish chaplain, Mr. Nome's mental and emotional states are deteriorating and it is negatively impacting his relationship with the prison administration," the complaint states.
Andrew Monnette converted to Islam while in a youth jail, the complaint says. He's out of prison now, but he credits a prison imam with helping him re-establish a connection with his mother, his child and his child's mother. While incarcerated, he regularly saw an imam before the contract was axed.
Because the imam's contract was not renewed, Monnette says, he "feels that his religion was not being respected as compared to Christianity. The absence of the imam made Mr. Monnette's time in segregation very frustrating and difficult for him."
The complaint states: "The prison chaplaincy 'brings light to dark places.' It is an integral and trusted link for prisoners who are reaching out to their religious community."
"The impact of the decision is the cancellation of all minority-faith chaplains in British Columbia, leaving the individual plaintiffs without guidance, services or spiritual refuge. The inequality imposed is directly related to the religious identity of the affected prisoners. Regardless of the intent of the Minister, the result has been to create an environment which espouses the Christian faith above all others and creates an atmosphere which is hostile to minority faith prisoners."
The plaintiffs want the government's decision declared unconstitutional and want it ordered to reinstate the contracts of minority-faith prison chaplains in British Columbia.
They are represented by David Wotherspoon with Fasken Marineau DuMoulin, in Vancouver.