Discover more from Friendly Atheist
Atheists sue WV prison officials for forcing some inmates to profess Christianity
The West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation says certain inmates need to profess a belief in God if they want to be granted parole
This Substack newsletter is free, but it’s only able to sustain itself due to the support I receive from a small percentage of regular readers. Would you please consider becoming one of those supporters? You can use the button below to subscribe to Substack or use my usual Patreon page!
American Atheists has filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation forced their client to participate in religious activities in order to be eligible for parole. The inmate in question requested secular accommodations, but the WVDCR wouldn’t make them.
Andrew T. Miller entered prison in 2021 after being convicted of breaking and entering. He’s serving a sentence of 1-10 years with a projected release date of April 3, 2025. Being a “good” inmate, then, will have a direct impact on how soon he’ll regain his freedom.
According to the lawsuit, the WVDCR operates a program called Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT), and inmates who are placed in that program are required to complete it if they want to be granted parole. Not going through the 6- to 12-month program results in a penalty that deems you more of a security threat.
That’s a problem because the RSAT handbook is chock full of Christianity.
It includes the Lord’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer, and the infamous “Twelve Steps”—all of which reference a “higher power” at minimum. Another part of the handbook tells participants: “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority; a loving God as he may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”
It’s not just items in the book, though. Some of the required homework involves telling the course leader “what God means to me” and “what prayer means to me.”
Soon after Miller began his incarceration, he was told he had to go through the RSAT program. He quickly realized how religious it was, though, and asked for an alternative option:
On July 12, 2021, in a letter to then-Commissioner Betsy Jividen, he objected to the religious nature of the RSAT program… As an accommodation, he suggested that he could receive substance abuse treatment through PSIMED and participate in the Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Substance Abuse (CBISA) and Thinking for a Change classes (courses also provided through the RSAT program) without also being subjected to the religious elements found in the other parts of the RSAT Program…
Unfortunately, his request was denied. So were his multiple grievance complaints challenging that denial. The people in charge said he had no choice but to go through the Christian program. As a result of his pushback, he’s been denied parole multiple times, with the board specifically saying he didn’t complete his RSAT program.
That’s why American Atheists has now taken up this case:
“West Virginia, like too many states, is forcing Christianity on the people incarcerated in their facilities as a condition of release,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists. “Attacks like this on the rights of atheists, humanists, and any non-Christian person who interacts with the West Virginia Division of Corrections are ongoing and widespread. For many corrections officials, spreading religious propaganda is more important than respecting people’s rights or the Constitution.”
“No one should be compelled to sacrifice their moral or religious creed to obtain release from incarceration in West Virginia. Mountain State Justice is proud to work with American Atheists to stand up for Mr. Miller’s right to follow his conscience and Secular Humanist beliefs,” said Lesley Nash, Mountain State Justice attorney.
This isn’t a complicated request on Miller’s end. He’s not arguing against going through a substance abuse treatment program; he just doesn’t want someone else’s religion shoved in his face in the process. Just as a Christian inmate shouldn’t have to adopt Islam in order to get out of prison sooner, an atheist inmate shouldn’t have to pretend to be Christian for the parole board to deem him worthy of freedom.
The irony is that if he just lied about his beliefs, there’s a chance he could have gotten out sooner. It’s the people running the prison who think he ought to mislead everyone in order to convince them of his goodness.
Miller tried multiple times to fix this on his own and got nowhere. This lawsuit is the last resort. It specifically says the WVDCR violation the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which “prohibits the government from imposing a substantial burden on an inmate’s exercise of his or her sincerely held beliefs unless the burdening act is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest.” They’re also violating the Establishment, Free Exercise, and Free Speech clauses of the Constitution.
Recall that a Buddhist pilot filed a similar lawsuit against United Airlines after they made him go through a Christian-focused alcoholism recovery program. He won the case and United promised to change their policies moving forward.
In New York, there’s been controversy around a bill involving similar substance abuse treatment programs. The bill would’ve required judges to tell participants that there were secular options in addition to the religious Alcoholics Anonymous. If the defendant had an objection, the court would need to offer an alternative program without the religious element. That bill was foolishly vetoed by Gov. Kathy Hochul. Still, the message was clear: The government cannot force anyone to profess Christianity (or theism in general) in order to receive any kind of benefit.
The same rule applies to inmates. Hopefully a judge will soon agree.
If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe to my newsletter! Do it for the kids.