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Laney: Jail doesn't favor single church

The Cass County sheriff says a former inmate's charge that the jail favors one religion over others is untrue, and that if other denominations in the metro area want to offer programs, he's open to their ideas.

Sgt. Jeff Skuza

The Cass County sheriff says a former inmate's charge that the jail favors one religion over others is untrue, and that if other denominations in the metro area want to offer programs, he's open to their ideas.

Sheriff Paul Laney said the programs run by Fargo's First Assembly of God church are the only faith-based offerings available for work release inmates. But, Laney said, that's because the church has been the only group to step forward to create a secure program with jail staff. The church provides transportation to and from the jail.

"We will never stop any inmate from having any access to their faith. But we just don't allow inmates to sign out of jail and go to church services any time they want," Laney said.

"If Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists or Jews" want to set up a program they can, he said. "We would never preclude any denomination out there from setting up a program."

The First Assembly of God programs hadn't provoked complaints until recently, when a former work release inmate, Zach Kobrinsky, wrote a guest editorial in the High Plains Reader charging religious favoritism at the jail.


Kobrinsky, an intern for the alternative weekly newspaper, recently finished serving time at the jail for an alcohol-related charge, Laney said. A jail form printed in the Reader with an inmate's request to worship with his own denomination is also Kobrinsky's, Laney said.

In this case, Kobrinsky, who is Jewish, asked to attend services with his denomination. Fargo's only temple is Temple Beth El.

Laney said inmates can get access to a representative of their faith at any time with the help of Chaplain Mike Sonju.

"We're a county facility, but when you look at the options we provide, we're very progressive when compared with other facilities," Laney said, ticking off a laundry list of drug, alcohol and life skills programs.

"What's being painted as an attempt to push faith on inmates is not true."

First Assembly of God offers life skills programs on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. On Sundays, they offer church services, a "Fresh Start" program and a meal for inmates and their families, said the Rev. Scott Stensgard, a pastor at the church.

Participation is voluntary; no one's coerced, Stensgard said.

"Everything we're doing is just trying to give (jail inmates) some tools to be a success in life," he said. "We want to help our community. That's the bottom line."


Sonju was out of town at the time of Kobrinsky's request and it was denied by jail staff.

Kobrinsky is the son of Janeen Kobrinsky, the vice chairwoman of Fargo's Human Relations Commission.

Janeen Kobrinsky, the lay rabbi for Temple Beth El, and commission member Joy Rice, met with Chief Deputy Glenn Ellingsberg, said HRC Chairwoman Prairie Rose.

Rose said the issue is an ongoing concern and that inmates should be allowed to worship as their beliefs dictate.

"When it does come up, any service should be accessible," she said. "It just seems like a violation of someone's basic rights."

Laney said he plans to meet with other denominations to find out if they're interested in providing programs for inmates. He said jail staff will also work to explain programs more thoroughly.

Neither of the Kobrinsky's could be contacted Wednesday or Thursday despite calls to the temple and home. A person answering the phone Wednesday at the Kobrinsky's home identified himself as a son-in-law and said they were out of town.

Sonju and Laney said they'd encourage other denominations to work with inmates.


"The jail is part of the community and it needs community involvement," Sonju said.

"I am extremely supportive of the faith-based programs, because they work," Laney said. "I encourage any of the denominations to set up a program."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

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