Nevada youth detention center drops chaplain over anti-gay teachings

Washoe County Juvenile detention center, Reno, Nev.

Washoe County Juvenile detention center, Reno, Nev. Google Earth

RENO, Nev. — A Reno juvenile detention center cut ties this week with a longtime chaplain over his views on homosexuality, highlighting an issue that some state-run correctional facilities face.

The facility is looking for someone with more tolerant views to lead Sunday services and Bible classes, detention center division director Steven Calabrese said. Calabrese told the Reno Gazette-Journal the decision was made in light of recent sermons made by Marvin Neal.

Neal, who has been a formal volunteer chaplain at Washoe County’s Jan Evans Juvenile Justice Center for 15 years, said he received an email Monday stating his services were no longer needed. Officials recently approached him after a girl left a Bible study class upset over the idea God does not accept people involved in same-sex relationships.

“They asked me not to teach that anymore and hinted that they didn’t want me to say the same thing about abortion or suicide,” Neal said. “I have to tell the truth in its entirety…I would not agree to not teach what the Bible says.”

The center’s Wittenberg Hall houses up to 100 incarcerated youths between ages 10 and 21. Church services for the 100 incarcerated youths are optional. Neal, 62, began volunteering there 25 years ago. He also serves as a pastor at a Reno church.

Calabrese said services will continue and the facility is currently doing a background check on a possible successor.

Whether a chaplain working for the state is allowed to express his or her religious beliefs is something more correctional facilities nationwide have been dealing with. John Tomandl, a spokesman for the American Correctional Chaplain Association, said some states ask chaplains to sign statements that they do not believe being gay is a sin.

“That is a violation of the First Amendment to sign something you don’t believe, but when you work for the state, you have to honor the laws of the state,” Tomandl told the Gazette-Journal.

Tomandl has been a chaplain for the New York State Correctional system for 13 years. If asked, he will share his own beliefs. But as a state employee, he is expected to provide spiritual comfort for all while upholding the laws — including the legalization of same-sex marriage.

A study conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that focuses on initiatives for children and families, found that a high percentage of detained juveniles feel stigmatized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The study, which was released in September, reports 20 percent of youth in juvenile detention facilities identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

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