It was a good week for atheists in America. In case you missed it: On Wednesday, we announced a momentous win in the federal civil rights lawsuit American Atheists brought against the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (WVDCR). Later that same day came news of another big victory in a Colorado case from our friends at AU and the ACLU.
Earlier this year, our legal team filed a lawsuit on behalf of Andrew Miller, an atheist and Secular Humanist who was repeatedly denied parole for his conscientious refusal to participate in an overtly religious (and federally funded) substance use recovery program as a prerequisite for parole. In Andrew’s own words: “I was, for a period of time, essentially incarcerated simply because I am not a Christian. In order to secure my freedom, West Virginia forced me, an atheist, to act as an anti-atheist, to pray to a God I don’t believe in, and to preach a gospel that condemns me.”
In July, a federal judge denied West Virginia’s motion to dismiss the case and issued a preliminary injunction requiring WVDCR officials to remove the RSAT program from Andrew’s requirements for release, citing its “undeniably religious nature,” including mandatory Christian prayers and required reading developed by Texas Christian University that said, among other hateful things, “atheists and agnostics…are ‘doomed to an alcohol death’ unless they ‘seek Him.’”
We are excited to announce that Andrew has officially been released, the WVDCR removed its religious requirements, and West Virginia has agreed to settle our lawsuit. All of that is thanks to Andrew’s unshakeable courage and the tireless efforts of Geoffrey Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists, and our partners at Mountain State Justice. As Geoffrey put it: “This is, of course, a tremendous victory for Andrew, who is finally free, but also a complete vindication of his and other nonreligious Americans’ rights under the law.”
Also this week, a federal judge issued a ruling in a Colorado lawsuit brought by AU and the ACLU. In this case, a parole officer re-imprisoned atheist Mark Janny for refusing to participate in religious services, faith-based counseling, and Bible studies. The officer had an arrangement with the head of a Christian homeless shelter “to place parolees there, with the understanding that they would take part in compulsory religious worship and practice.” Like Andrew, Mark’s requests for accommodation were denied. The judge found that Mark is eligible to receive damages for violations of his religious freedoms.
These are two incredibly important victories – for Andrew and Mark, of course, and also for millions of other Americans who identify as nonreligious. But our work is far from done. As Andrew observed, “Nobody should have to file a lawsuit to force the government to fulfill its constitutional obligation to protect the religious freedom of everyone, including atheists.”
Unfortunately, West Virginia and Colorado are just two of many states we believe are imposing religious indoctrination on people in the criminal justice system. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “Nationwide, over 5.5 million adults are under some form of correctional control, whether incarcerated or under community supervision.” Shrouded behind bars and bureaucracy, it’s difficult to say how many of these people are suffering the very real harms of religious coercion and abuse right now, but we intend to find out. That’s why American Atheists is launching an investigation to uncover how widespread taxpayer-funded religious coercion programs are in our nation’s prison, parole, and probation systems.
Meanwhile, our policy team is continuing to advocate for legislation that would require courts to inform criminal defendants and those who are incarcerated of their constitutional right to object to religious 12-step programs and access nonreligious, evidence-based, and life-saving substance abuse treatment options, including SMART Recovery and LifeRing.
Last week, I told you we have to keep “organizing, advocating, educating, and voting like our rights depend on it (and they do).” That wasn’t hyperbole. When atheists in America are being told to be a Christian or be imprisoned, we are witnessing state-sponsored, taxpayer-funded religious coercion, and we must do everything we can to stop it and safeguard our rights.
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