Needless controversy at the jail

The Rev. Monsignor Ed Lofton

It is fairly obvious that a religious ceremony that has been practiced 15 years in the Charleston County Jail without incident isn’t endangering inmates or jailers, and isn’t disrupting the jail’s operation.

So it is baffling that Chief Deputy Mitch Lucas, the jail’s administrator, suddenly decided this week that Monsignor Ed Lofton could no longer consume wine when he conducts Mass for inmates.

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon seemed to agree Thursday when he announced that he would allow an ounce of communion wine to be brought in by a priest and consumed by him — for the time being. He said will decide on a permanent policy later.

Why wait? It seems obvious that the temporary rule should stand.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections allows clergy to bring in only enough communion wine for the celebrant to consume. The sheriff and his employees at the county jail should follow suit.

Mr. Lucas cited jail policy for his decision to stop Monsignor Lofton from taking wine into the jail. Those rules prohibit food or liquid from being brought into the jail. That’s reasonable — we’ve all seen movies about files being baked in cakes and smuggled in.

But an ounce of wine for use by a priest during a Mass is something else again, and the deputy chief should be able to countenance such an exception.

Deputy Chief Lucas worries that if the jail allows priests to bring in wine, then other inmates might expect sweat lodges and peyote. Indeed, some prisons out West have dealt with Native Americans’ request for sweat lodges.

But that seems a fairly far-out issue to be on the Charleston County Jail’s radar, and a weak rationale on which to ban communion wine.

There are differences of opinion on the issue, but the general consensus is that inmates have a right to practice their religion. Moreover, Monsignor Lofton makes the point that Mass is a calming, comforting experience for inmates. That should be good for the inmates and good for jailers.

On Thursday, Chief Cannon called the matter “a non-issue.” Certainly, it ought to be, and the sheriff could quickly make it so.

But Monsignor Lofton still is banned from the jail because of what Mr. Cannon referred to as a “disconnect” with the jail administration.

Seems as if county officials should be able to acknowledge Monsignor Lofton as an ally in enhancing the jail environment.

At that point, the “non-issue” tag might apply.