Atheist Group Decries Kanye West Performance, Religious Services in Texas Jail

November 25, 2019 Updated: November 25, 2019

An atheist group that opposes all forms of religious expression and practice on public property warned Sheriff Ed Gonzalez of Harris County, Texas, that he shouldn’t have let hip-hop star and new Christian convert Kanye West hold a Sunday service in the local jail.

More than 200 male and female inmates in the Harris County Jail attended two separate services led by West on Nov. 15. Photos from the events on social media show inmates kneeling in prayer and holding their arms in the air in worship.

West and his choir performed selections from his latest album, “Jesus Is King,” which debuted Oct. 25 at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200.

Following the event, a Sheriff’s Department officer wrote on Twitter, “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.”

When news of the West event became public, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), based in Madison, Wisconsin, released a letter demanding that no more such gatherings be allowed in the Harris County Jail.

Andrew Seidel, an FFRF attorney, wrote in the letter to Gonzalez: “Media reported that West coordinated the performances with jail officials, and that West explained that, since his recent public conversion to Christianity, ‘My job is to spread the gospel, to let people know what Jesus has done for me.'”

Seidel cited the sheriff department’s tweets, including one that called the performance “a mission, not a show.” Seidel said these tweets “celebrate the religious—and specifically Christian—aspect of West’s performance. This is a clear admission that the concerts had a religious purpose and were not for entertaining the inmates but converting them.”

Seidel told Gonzalez that “arranging a Christian church-like religious concert for inmates sends a clear message that the Harris County Sheriff’s Office prefers religion over nonreligion and specifically Christianity over minority religions … In short, this was unconstitutional.”

The letter concluded, “We request assurances that HCSO will not organize or promote worship services in the future.”

Asked on Nov. 25 by The Epoch Times for a response to the FFRF letter, a spokesman for Gonzalez said, “The Harris County Sheriff’s Office works with all organizations—secular and religious—that are willing to positively support inmates’ efforts to transition back into our communities better prepared to contribute to society.”

The Harris County Jail houses more than 14,000 prisoners and is the third-largest in the country. It is also the focus of dozens of independent full-time ministries such as Lighthouse Prison Ministries Inc., and church-based volunteer ministries from congregations throughout the jurisdiction.

Nationally, there are thousands of similar ministries, most notably Prison Fellowship, which was started in 1976 by Charles Colson, a former aide to President Richard Nixon who served seven months in federal detention for his role in the Watergate scandal.

The FFRF often challenges state and local law enforcement officials for allowing such ministries to operate within the correctional system. Frequently, the ministries are defended against FFRF by First Liberty Institute (FLI), a Dallas-based law firm that specializes in religious freedom cases.

“I guess FFRF would have protested Johnny Cash singing ‘How Great Thou Art’ in Folsom Prison. The First Amendment does not require a ban on Gospel music in prisons. Singing a song is not establishing an official state religion,” FLI general counsel Hiram Sasser told The Epoch Times on Nov. 25.

Sasser was referring to Cash’s 1955 release that became one of his signature songs.

Contact Mark Tapscott at mark.tapscott@epochtimes.nyc

RECOMMENDED