Two weeks ago, Kanye West brought his now-famous “Sunday Service” to a Houston jail, thrilling inmates with a faith-based concert featuring songs from his new album, and spreading the Gospel ahead of his trip to Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church.
Kanye stayed “several hours” to speak with and perform for inmates and staff members at Harris County Jail, according to NME. He did two shows, one for male inmates and one for female inmates, and encouraged his audience to worship Christ through his music, much of which now centers around the theme of Christianity.
The Harris County Sheriff was more than happy to allow West to minister to inmates at the Harris County Jail, and video of the event, which showed West performing as inmates raised their hands in prayer, quickly went viral. The Sheriff took photos with West and tweeted, “@kanyewest visited us today. I know he has a busy weekend in H-Town surrounding his visit to @lakewoodchurch, so appreciate him and his choir spending time with us. #HouNews.”
Although West doesn’t necessarily describe his “Sunday Services,” which take place in LA, near the rapper’s ranch in Montana, and, occasionally on the road, as “Christian worship services” or “church,” West is clear that his mission is to spread the good word of the Gospel and encourage his audiences to participate in praise and worship. His services feature spiritual readings, gospel choir performances, and, sometimes, preaching (occasionally by the rapper himself), and West specifically targets “lost” audiences now that his “Sunday services” are on the road. The Harris County Jail was the first stop, but West reportedly plans to bring his mission to places like strip clubs and public housing projects.
That is, if the Freedom From Religion Foundation doesn’t stop him.
According to Fox News, FFRF has filed suit against Harris County and its sheriff, alleging that the jail and its leadership violated the “freedom from religion” clause of the First Amendment, forcing taxpayers to subsidize a “church service” on public ground.
The letter claims that West’s performance was an “egregious” constitutional violation, and that the Supreme Court “mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.”
“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,” the group’s attorney wrote in a letter to Harris County sheriff, Ed Gonzales. “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 Kanye West is famous,” the group added. “If anything, this makes the violation worse because the captive audience may be more receptive to his message.”
FFRF cites a follow up tweet from the sheriff, which refers to West’s performance as a “church service” as proof of their point.
FFRF is, quite simply, overstating the basics of First Amendment law, which does not “mandate” that institutions practice “neutrality” in such a way that no religion is allowed to enter a public space. Public spaces, instead, must be open to all religions and non-religions equally; if Kanye West is allowed to perform as a work of ministry, the prison can’t turn away other explicitly religious ministries. Generally, that means there is an application process that looks upon the content of a presentation with a neutral eye.
But that is, of course, assuming that what West is doing is pressing Christianity and not simply extending the hand to an underserved community. West isn’t running a non-profit, nor an actual, established church. He’s simply reaching out to spread the Gospel in a way that resonates with targeted communities.
“Kanye West visited the Harris County Jail to offer hope and encouragement,” Mike Berry, a First Amendment attorney who has regularly faced FFRF 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.”