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Judge: WV prison officials can't force an atheist inmate to profess Christianity
It's a massive victory for an atheist prisoner taking on the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation
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A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction in a case involving a prisoner who was forced to participate in religious activities in order to be eligible for parole. (In regular-speak, the good guys won. For now.)
Back in April, American Atheists filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of their client, Andrew T. Miller, against the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Miller had requested secular accommodations, but the WVDCR wouldn’t make them.
That refusal had consequences. Miller entered prison in 2021 after being convicted of breaking and entering, and he’s currently serving a sentence of 1-10 years with a projected release date of April 3, 2025. Being seen as a “good” inmate has 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, American Atheists claimed, is 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. Some of the required homework involves telling the course leader “what God means to me” and “what prayer means to me.”
Soon after Miller was incarcerated, 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. He was willing to do everything in the course that didn’t involve professing a religious faith he didn’t have.
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 was denied parole three separate times, with the board specifically citing the non-completion of the RSAT program as a significant reason he wasn’t allowed to go free.
That’s why American Atheists took 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 wasn’t a complicated request on Miller’s end. He wasn’t arguing against going through a substance abuse treatment program; he just didn’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 was 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 insisted he 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 was the last resort. It specifically said the WVDCR violated 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.” The WVDCR was also violating the Establishment, Free Exercise, and Free Speech clauses of the Constitution, the lawsuit said.
In response, the WVDCR said that all those controversial elements of the program were merely spiritual in nature, not religious (and certainly not Christian).
That argument failed miserably.
Yesterday U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin issued a preliminary injunction in the matter, telling the WVDCR to “remove the RSAT program” from Miller’s Individual Reentry Program Plan (IRPP) and see to it that participation in the RSAT program “is not considered as a factor in his eligibility for parole.” It’s a powerful ruling in favor of Miller and the atheists.
Goodwin explained that plenty of other states with similar programs have faced lawsuits and the courts have “unanimously” agreed the religious content of those programs violated the Constitution. The RSAT program, he said, was no less religious or coercive than the ones that have already been struck down.
The preliminary injunction means that if this case were to proceed through the courts, Miller would probably win the case, and if action isn’t taken immediately, he would be “likely to suffer irreparable harm.”
Throughout the ruling, there are blunt statements by the judge slamming the prison for forcing Miller to go through their religious program (emphases mine):
The factual allegations contained in the Complaint, if true, show that the state of West Virginia has coerced Plaintiff into religious exercise.
In sum, the evidence before the court wholly supports Mr. Miller’s allegations that the defendants have substantially burdened his protected religious exercise.
Having found that the state’s objective does not justify the challenged program, I conclude that Plaintiff is likely to succeed on the merits of his RLUIPA claim.
Because Mr. Miller has shown an unreasonable encroachment on his First Amendment rights, I find him likely to succeed on the merits of his Free Exercise claim.
Because Mr. Miller has shown a clear likelihood of a constitutional violation, he has shown irreparable harm.
Who knew there were so many different ways to tell prison officials they’re the ones breaking the law?
There were ultimately a couple of options suggested by Miller’s lawyers. He could complete a secular treatment program (which is what he always offered to do), or the parole board could just ignore the RSAT program when considering his possible release.
Goodwin explained that even if Miller began a secular treatment program now, he wouldn’t have enough time to complete it before his next date in front of the parole board, and there’s a good chance that he would be free right now if not for the RSAT program.
Had Mr. Miller simply submitted to Defendants’ coercion and completed RSAT, he likely would no longer be incarcerated, and WVDCR could continue its patently impermissible practices for years to come. Mr. Miller should not be further punished for bringing this troubling policy to light.
The 59-page ruling is just a massive public rebuttal to everything the prison was doing—and they deserve every bit of it.
American Atheists celebrated the ruling:
“This is a complete vindication of Andrew’s rights under the law,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists. “As Judge Goodwin said in his ruling, if Andrew had not stood up for his rights and instead allowed West Virginia to force this religious programming on him, it’s entirely possible he would already have been released. That's not a choice anyone should have to make.”
“Without Andrew’s willingness to take on this fight, West Virginia would continue to unconstitutionally impose religion on people in its corrections system,” added Blackwell.
“As we said when we filed this case, no one should be forced to set aside their moral or religious creed as a precondition of their parole,” said Lesley Nash, an attorney with Mountain State Justice, who is serving as local counsel in this case. “We’re pleased that the Court acted to protect Andrew’s rights when WVDCR has not.”
“It’s clear that religious coercion is an all-too-common issue in our nation’s criminal justice system,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “This is a step in the right direction, but it’s long overdue that we push for big, systemic changes to finally fix this. We shouldn’t have to file lawsuit after lawsuit to force the government to do the right thing: protecting the religious freedom of everyone, atheists included.”
As they suggest, no one, including prisoners, should be forced by the government to profess a belief in the spiritual or supernatural. Thankfully, Miller’s fight wasn’t in vain. When it comes to going free, his religious beliefs shouldn’t play any role in the parole board’s decision.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)
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