Sheriff Al Cannon called a priest’s consumption of wine during Mass behind bars a “non-issue” and chalked up the chaplain’s ouster to a disconnect on how the alcohol was being used.

The sheriff reinforced Monsignor Ed Lofton’s ban from the county jail, but said he would allow other priests to use sacramental wine while the topic is reviewed.

“Temporarily, that is my policy,” Cannon said during a news conference Thursday. “Based on a whole host of things, I feel that’s ultimately going to be our policy.

“But I’m withholding final judgment on that until we’ve had time to really look into that issue a little bit more.”

Lofton said he was the target of a ?civil-rights violation when he was booted from the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center this week. One of 86 volunteer chaplains, he demanded to continue using 1 ounce of wine for himself during Mass at the jail, something he has done for 15 years, he said.

Chief Deputy Mitch Lucas said he “fired” Lofton only after he brought up those legal implications about the prohibition. The sheriff added Thursday that Lofton would not return because of the chaplain’s “lack of confidence” in jail leadership.

After a meeting with the sheriff Thursday, Lofton said he was pleased with the outcome. But the former reserve police officer was disappointed that he wouldn’t be visiting the jail as he has throughout his 25 years in the priesthood.

“I think this is their way of saving face,” said Lofton, who once served as a chaplain in North Charleston when Cannon led the police agency there. “But I hopefully paved the way for someone else. Hopefully, this issue is finally resolved.”

Issue’s history

Lofton said problems arose in November, when he was called into a jail office and told to replace wine with grape juice because alcohol is considered contraband. Another parishioner was stopped for having a metal chalice, he said.

In months of back-and-forth discussions, Lofton also appealed to the jail’s second-in-command, a member of St. Theresa the Little Flower Catholic Church in Summerville, which Lofton leads.

Wine is essential in celebrating the Eucharist, Lofton said in pleading with commanders.

Despite the talks, a misunderstanding somehow arose between Lofton and administrators about “what the word ‘wine’ meant” in regards to the amount consumed and who drinks it, Cannon said.

Though rank-and-file officers, including one who contacted The Post and Courier Thursday, were aware of Lofton’s use of wine, the highest commander was not, Cannon contended.

Jail administrators thought Lofton wanted to give wine to inmates, according to Cannon. That, the sheriff said, would not be acceptable.

Things “went south,” Cannon said, “when the hint of legal ramifications came up” this week. Lucas promptly told the priest to leave.

Alcohol in general poses an inherent safety and security issue, the sheriff said, and that needs to be balanced with inmates’ legal rights to worship. But it’s not clear how to do that, he said.

“If cases go to the (U.S.) Supreme Court ... to decide what is and what is not required or permissible,” Cannon said, “I think it’s expecting a bit much of us down here on a lower level of legal intellect.”

Public reaction

The story has sparked an outpouring of support through emails and telephone calls to Lofton’s church and to the Catholic Diocese of Charleston. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley also weighed in on the subject after an unrelated news conference Thursday, saying the rules should “require some reasonable flexibility.”

According to experts and legal opinions, a priest’s use of wine is widely accepted in jails and prisons nationwide.

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said the lack of risks posed by wine is apparent in the state’s policy, which allows it.

“It is difficult to believe that this modern facility has a security need for an alcohol restriction that is more stringent,” she said. “We definitely think this is a constitutional issue.”

Paul Rogers, president of the American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association, said problems typically arise when low-level correctional officers turn away priests during contraband checks.

Rogers said it was “well-established” legally that priests can consume wine in prisons. If a priest allows it, inmates are permitted to drink a small amount too, he said.

“This pops up once a year when administrators focus on their own policies and procedures instead of the law,” Rogers said. “But there has been Catholic Mass going on for over 150 years in prisons and jails everywhere.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.