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Settlement reached in jail chaplain lawsuit

by Keith KINNAIRD<br
| January 25, 2010 8:00 PM

SANDPOINT — A settlement has been reached between the county and a Bonner County Jail chaplain who argued jail policy violated the constitutional right to free speech.

Scott Herndon of Sagle sued the county last year after he was barred from ministering to inmates because he spoke out on behalf of a Priest Lake murder suspect. A chaplain corps policy prohibited them from performing personal services for an inmate without prior approval from superiors.

Herndon argued in a U.S. District Court lawsuit that the policy effectively made chaplains waive their First Amendment rights in order to minister to inmates.

Herndon was barred from ministering at jail after he wrote a letter to a 1st District judge which questioned whether Keith Allen Brown was being denied the right to due process.

At the time of Herndon’s intervention, Brown’s mental competency was being drawn into question. A judge declared him “dangerously mentally ill,” although Brown claimed he was never advised what he was diagnosed with, a point which Herndon questioned in his letter to Judge Fred Gibler.

Brown, 49, has since been deemed fit to proceed to trial on charges of first-degree murder and grand theft by possession of stolen property in connection with the 2007 shooting death of Leslie Carlton Breaw in Coolin.

Brown pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial, which has been shifted to Shoshone County because of pretrial publicity.

Herndon’s counsel, Sandpoint attorney William Berg, announced the settlement on Monday. The settlement reinstated Herndon as a jail chaplain and added a clause to the chaplain policy that it “shall not be construed to limit a chaplain’s First Amendment Rights.”

“We came out with a great result thanks to the cooperation and professionalism of Sheriff Daryl Wheeler,” Berg said in a statement. “We got our guy reinstated and the sheriff put together new chaplaincy policies that better spell out the rules for jail ministry.”

Herndon described an recent interaction he had with an inmate after his chaplain privilege was restored.

“We talked about the Lord’s interest in developing his moral character, and he was alternately crying and relieved throughout our conversation. He said he was grateful to have that particular conversation with me today,” Herndon said.