The Freedom From Religion Foundation is spotlighting an appalling instance of religious favoritism that the Indiana Department of Correction has shown toward a mass murderer.
Alyssa Shepherd, who was convicted of killing three children and badly injuring a fourth at their Fulton County bus stop in 2018, was reportedly released six months ahead of schedule because she took a bible study course called “Plus Faith 2.0: Criminal Lifestyle, Attitudes & Behavior.” “After completing a bible course, Shepherd was granted release six months early,” says a local television news story.
It is a fundamental principle of First Amendment jurisprudence that the government cannot in any way promote, advance or otherwise endorse religion, FFRF points out.
“Federal courts uniformly agree that mandatory participation in religious programs violates the Establishment Clause,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Indiana Department of Correction Commissioner Rob Carter. “It is similarly unconstitutional for the department to coerce participation in these programs by offering preferential treatment and benefits, like reduced sentences, for those who participate in religious programs.”
Reducing an inmate’s sentence for participating in a bible study course is illegal, FFRF emphasizes because it ties a substantial and desirable benefit — the opportunity to leave jail sooner — to an exclusively religious act: engaging in religious study and worship. The amount of time that someone is required to stay in jail should not be dependent on their willingness to participate in religious activities or their religious affiliation.
FFRF is asking the Department of Correction to stop decreasing sentences for those who participate in bible study and seek religiously neutral ways to advance its rehabilitation efforts. FFRF has also filed an open records request to learn more about the department’s policies and how this occurred.
“This is a shocking instance of religious favoritism bestowed upon a person who killed three children,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The fact that she took a bible course should in no way, shape or form result in the truncating of a prison sentence for her.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 36,000 members and several chapters across the country, including 500 members and a local chapter in Indiana. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.