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Federal judge: Atheist parolee jailed for rejecting Bible study can seek financial damages
No one should have to choose between going to church or going to jail
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Another day, another former atheist inmate getting some justice.
On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that Mark Janny, an inmate who had already served his time, could seek monetary damages in his case against a parole officer who punished him for not attending Christian worship services.
The case dates back to 2015, when Janny, an atheist, was released from jail. His parole officer, John Gamez, told Janny that if he wanted to remain out of prison, he would have to live at the Denver Rescue Mission, a Christian homeless shelter, because he needed a “residence of record.”
That shelter’s rules required residents to participate in worship services, Bible studies, and faith-based counseling, none of which Janny had any desire to join. And he shouldn’t have had to. The courts should never force anyone, much less an atheist, to attend a Christian anything as a requirement of parole.
Janny actually suggested an alternative: staying at the home of some family friends. That option was rejected, though, so Janny went to the shelter… but didn’t participate in the religious activities. Because he didn’t participate, he was kicked out of the shelter. Because he was kicked out of the shelter, Gamez revoked Janny’s parole and sent him back to jail.
When the Parole Board saw him a few weeks later, they agreed that Janny violated his parole for not having a place of residence and sent him back to jail for five more months.
In short: Janny was incarcerated unnecessarily all because he refused to participate in a Christian ministry.
Janny sued, but it didn’t go well. He represented himself in court (which didn’t help) and a district court eventually dismissed his case.
In June of 2020, the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State worked with Janny to appeal that decision, meaning they were putting the weight of their organizations behind his case. And that eventually paid off. In 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit overturned the dismissal of his case, 2-1, allowing him to pursue his lawsuit.
… the Tenth Circuit recognized that every person has “the basic right to be free from state-sponsored religious coercion” in today’s ruling, which reversed the district court’s decision and determined that Janny may take his case to trial.
Americans United and the ACLU issued the following statements in response to today’s decision:
Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director at Americans United: “This is a victory for Mark and for religious freedom. Our country’s fundamental principle of church-state separation guarantees that everyone has the right to believe, or not, as they choose. That means that our government must never force anyone to practice a faith that is not their own, and of course must never jail anyone for refusing to submit to religious proselytization.”
Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief: “The government presented Mr. Janny with a blatantly unconstitutional choice: Go to church, or go to jail. As the court’s decision makes clear, the First Amendment flatly prohibits such religious coercion, and state officials should know better.”
To be clear, that didn’t mean his case was over. Far from it. The ruling simply allowed the case to move forward on the merits instead of being blocked from proceeding entirely. Without that decision, justice wasn’t even a possibility.
There was also an issue regarding who Janny could sue and whether certain people had qualified immunity. The district court had said earlier that the parole officer didn’t violate Janny’s First Amendment rights. But the appeals court overturned that decision, too, saying that if they let the immunity stand, it would violate the “basic right to be free from state-sponsored religious coercion.”
That brings us to this week’s big update to the case.
On Tuesday, Judge Raymond Moore of the U.S. District Court for the Federal District of Colorado ruled that Janny could move forward on his claims to recover damages for the violations of his religious freedom. The other side tried to prevent that, but they weren’t able to stop it, and that could mean a big payout for Janny.
The ACLU summarized the ruling this way:
… Specifically, Janny is eligible to recover punitive damages, compensatory damages for loss of liberty and economic damages for loss of wages for part of the period of his confinement, and nominal damages. The case is scheduled to go to trial in July of 2024.
“Eligible” is the key word there. He hasn’t won the case, but this is a big green light in the right direction. It’s not clear how much money Janny stands to recover if he wins, but the principle of the matter may be just as important, as AU CEO and president Rachel K. Laser explained:
“This is a victory for Mark Janny and for religious freedom. Our country’s fundamental principle of church-state separation guarantees that everyone has the right to believe as they choose, so long as they don’t harm others. That means that our government must never force anyone to practice a faith that is not their own, and of course must never jail anyone for refusing to submit to religious proselytization.”
It’s absurd that this case got to this point. No one should have to choose between church or jail. To make someone practice Christianity in order to avoid prison time is beyond unreasonable. Everyone involved in prolonging Janny’s imprisonment should be penalized for their actions... but at least in this case, the person most responsible for the injustice against Janny will be taken to court. That in itself is a huge victory. Hopefully, the first of many.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)