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Their intention was to prevent books that advocated violence or, one guesses, religious extremism. But what started as a brainstorm in the Justice Department has devolved into a gutting of the religion shelves in federal prison libraries and the establishment of the government as the reviewer of what are acceptable and unacceptable religious texts.

Prison libraries have been emptied of unapproved books, and music and videos were similarly restricted.

The Bureau of Prisons' reviewers - who remain anonymous - seem to have some specific prejudices. While seven of Our Sunday Visitor's 500 titles were judged acceptable, 80 of 120 approved Jewish texts reportedly came from one Orthodox publishing house. Critics note that evangelical authors tended to get a thumb's up. Mainline or liberal Protestant texts - rarely accused of extremism in any sense - were less likely to win government approval. "Jesus of Nazareth," Pope Benedict's new best-seller, is not on the approved Catholic list. C.S. Lewis, N.T Wright and Martin Marty - all non-Catholics - are.

Such parlor games show the danger of such a policy, bringing ridicule upon the censors excluding from a needy population exactly the medicine it most needs.

Prison authorities have the right to restrict access to materials likely to provoke violence or extremism - and such extremism is not just limited to Muslims. Remember David Koresh or abortionist killer Paul Hill or the Jewish Defense League? Just as infamous works like The Anarchist Cookbook deserve banning in a prison environment, there may indeed be occasional books that, under a religious veneer, encourage violence. If these posed a threat, they could certainly be identified and removed on a case-by-case basis.

But there is a significant difference between identifying those relatively few books that encourage violence and restricting the many thousands that seek to explain or inspire. As legal scholar Robert Destro told Our Sunday Visitor, whether banning books or approving books, the government has raised issues regarding the establishment clause, free exercise, free speech and free press issues that must be addressed.

We believe such a policy puts the government in exactly the role that the founding fathers sought to avoid: the state determining what religious beliefs are permissible. While officials for the Bureau of Prisons argue that the list is not final and will be added to over time, prison libraries have already been emptied of thousands of books, and a bad precedent has been established.

Three prisoners - a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew - filed suit in federal court. We urge the courts to hear the case quickly and declare this policy unconstitutional.

More desirable, however, would be for this administration to withdraw this misguided policy. An administration that supports faith-based initiatives and has lauded the positive role of religion in the public square should not be taking the irrational position that religion is somehow dangerous for prisoners unless it has been vetted by the state first.

More to the point, a prison population is exactly where one would hope to find a wide variety of religious texts encouraging the conversion of heart that our prison system today seems least capable of inspiring.

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