Atheists up in arms over chair prison volunteers are carving for Pope Francis' visit

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Inmates (L-R) Dino Robinson, 24, and Brandon Hargrose, 31, pose in the furniture shop during a media tour of the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, August 7, 2015. Inmates are making a chair that Pope Francis will sit on during his scheduled to visit the prison on September 27 during his six-day visit to the United States. | REUTERS/Mark Makela

PHILADELPHIA (Christian Examiner) – The term "the chair" usually has negative connotations for most prisoners, but a group of inmates in Pennsylvania has had a decidedly positive experience in carving one for Pope Francis's visit to their prison later this month.

The inmates, selected to participate in the project for good behavior and their work ethic at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, carved the chair out of walnut and upholstered it over the past several weeks, FOX News has reported.

The chair will be presented to the pontiff during his visit to the Curran-Fromhold Corrections Facility on Sept. 27. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Francis will meet with selected inmates and their families, as well as prison staff, during the visit as part of his emphasis on visiting those in prison.

Not everyone, however, is happy about a state corrections facility utilizing prison labor on the construction of the chair Pope Francis will use in his visit. In fact, the Freedom from Religion Foundation has sent a letter to the commissioner of prisons saying the construction of the chair and its use by the pope is a violation of the Constitution.

"It has come to our attention that recently prisoners within the PPS (Philadelphia Prison System) have been enlisted to prepare for a visit from Pope Francis, the world leader of Roman Catholicism, by crafting a chair as a gift for Catholicism's highest pontiff," the letter from FFRF's Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said.

"We understand that crafting gifts for Catholic leaders has happened more than once. It is reported that in January, 'inmates also made a special chair for the Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput when he celebrated Mass at the facility.' We write to point out that PPS appears to be showing impermissible favoritism to one religion over all others, and religion over non-religion, by inviting Catholic leaders to its facilities and then bestowing gifts on them."

Prison Commissioner Louis Giorla has said the chair was constructed through the efforts of men of many faiths and that all who worked on the project were volunteers.

According to Gaylor, the fact that the men volunteered is irrelevant because the chair will be used for sectarian purposes.