A prisoners' rights group in B.C. is suing the federal government for allegedly violating the constitutional rights of non-Christian inmates by cancelling the contracts of 18 non-Christian chaplains at federal prisons.

Two Buddhists, two Wiccans, two Muslims, a Sikh and a Jewish believer say Corrections Canada is denying them reasonable access to religion and spirituality.

In October, the agency confirmed its plans to lay off 49 part-time chaplains — 31 of whom are Christians — who provided religious counsel to a variety of faiths. The layoffs, expected to take effect at the end of March, will leave British Columbia without a non-Christian chaplain.

The part-time chaplains are to be replaced with a mix of volunteers and the CSC’s 71 full-time Christian chaplains and two full-time Muslim chaplains.

"It is a pretty clear cut case on the basis of religion," said D.J. Larkin, a staff lawyer with West Coast Prison Justice Society, which is representing eight current and former inmates in the case.

"What’s happening right now is there are Christian-based chaplains in B.C. There are no minority-based chaplains in B.C."

Larkin says she has documented a number of cases where prisoners have requested religious counselling but have been unable to attain it.

57% of inmates Christian

There were nearly 23,000 inmates in federal custody in 2011 and a large majority of them identified themselves as Christian:

  • 37.5% are Catholic.
  • 19.5% are Protestant.
  • 4.5% are Muslim.
  • 4% First Nations spirituality
  • 2% are Buddhist.
  • Fewer than 1% are Jewish.
  • Fewer than 1% are Sikh.

Cantor Michael Zoosman was a part-time Jewish prison chaplain in B.C. who now works in Washington D.C.

He says religion can help people stay out of prison — saving money and helping them reintegrate into society.

"There's a real opportunity for rehabilitation through spiritual connectedness that only chaplains can achieve," Zoosman said.

"Minorities deserve the same access to that rehabilitation as majorities."

With their lawsuit, the eight current and former inmates are asking that the Correctional Service of Canada reinstate and continue the contracts of the non-Christian chaplains in British Columbia.

The CSC wouldn't comment on the lawsuit, but released a statement saying it is committed to respecting religious freedom.

The agency "will also continue to engage the voluntary support of our community partners to deliver chaplaincy services to offenders," the statement read.

"CSC remains committed to respecting the religious freedom and right of expression of federal offenders of all faiths, and will continue to provide support and services to offenders of all religious backgrounds."

In October, the CSC confirmed that the total cost of the chaplain program is about $6.4 million a year. Part-time contracts represent approximately $1.3 million of the budget.

With files from CBC’s Greg Rasmussen