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WV prison finally releases atheist inmate denied parole for refusing 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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In an incredible victory for (non-)religious freedom, a prisoner who was forced to participate in religious activities in order to be eligible for parole has won his case and been released from jail. Even better, the prison has changed its policies so no future inmate is placed in a similar situation.
This story goes back to April, when 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 was serving a sentence of 1-10 years with a projected release date of April 3, 2025. Being seen as a “good” inmate would have a direct impact on how soon he could regain his freedom.
According to the lawsuit, the WVDCR operated a program called Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT), and inmates who were placed in that program were required to complete it if they wanted to be granted parole. Not going through the 6- to 12-month program resulted in a penalty that deemed inmates more of a security threat.
That, American Atheists claimed, was a problem because the RSAT handbook was chock full of Christianity.
It included 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 told 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 wasn’t just items in the book. Some of the required homework involved 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 was 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.
In July, 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 was 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 meant that if this case were to proceed through the courts, Miller would probably win, and if action wasn’t taken immediately, he would be “likely to suffer irreparable harm.”
Throughout the ruling, there were 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 were 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 when he issued his ruling, he wouldn’t have enough time to complete it before his next date in front of the parole board, and there was a good chance that he would already be free 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 good news now is that the earlier (preliminary) ruling seems to be the last word on the matter. American Atheists just announced that Miller is now a free man, which means the faith-based policy isn’t being used to keep him incarcerated. Furthermore, the WVDCR is changing its policies so no one has to go through the same ordeal ever again; that includes using the (secular) SMART Recovery’s InsideOut program as an acceptable substitute for RSAT. (I was told the settlement document has been signed by all parties, but it was not publicly available as of this writing.)
Mr. Miller was officially released under West Virginia’s Non-Violent Offender Parole Program in October. In addition, the WVDCR removed its requirement that participants attend religious 12-step meetings and removed religious components from its federally funded Residential Substance Abuse Treatment Program (RSAT) handbook. The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation also agreed to pay $80,000 in legal fees to Mountain State Justice and American Atheists.
“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,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists. “And yet, if the WVDCR had acted properly, Andrew may well have been released much sooner. Rather than cave to West Virginia’s unconstitutional religious coercion, he took a principled stand and fought to defend his First Amendment rights.”
It’s a win for everyone involved. That includes Miller, even though he probably would have been released earlier if he didn’t have to file this lawsuit.
Miller told me in an email statement last night that he hopes no one in his position ever has to profess a belief in the spiritual or supernatural in order to obtain their freedom:
I am so happy that the judge ruled in our favor, but no one should have to compromise their beliefs just to be given a fair chance at release. I want people to understand their rights, and for government officials to understand that they can’t force religious beliefs on people, no matter what their situation. American Atheists has done an amazing job with this lawsuit, and I am glad that the judge agreed with us!"
Thankfully, Miller’s fight wasn’t in vain. When it comes to freedom, no one’s religious beliefs should play a role in the parole board’s decisions. Now, at least in West Virginia, they won’t.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)