Secular groups demand equal treatment for Humanist prisoners

Two of the most prominent secular organizations in the United States have filed an amicus brief in appellate court today over discriminatory official treatment of a Humanist inmate in Nevada.

The Nevada Department of Corrections and Lovelock Correctional Center have denied a Humanist prisoner, Benjamin Espinosa, the opportunities accorded to dozens of “faith groups”: the ability to organize and meet. Shockingly, when Espinosa sued to exercise his rights on an equal basis with theistic prisoners, a district court ruled that Espinosa had no constitutional right to meet with other Humanist inmates, because Humanism doesn’t require the belief in a god.

The district court’s dangerous decision misapplies the law in a way that could undermine the rights of nontheists if it is upheld. Humanism is entitled to constitutional protection as a religion, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State assert. Rolling back the clock to a time when the term “religion” referred only to “one’s views of his relations to his Creator,” the district court’s view is an anachronistic interpretation that runs counter to more than half a century of well-established legal precedent.

Nontheists, those who choose not to believe in any gods, such as atheists and adherents of Humanism, Ethical Culture and Unitarian Universalism, are protected by the Constitution to the same extent as theists. The Supreme Court definitively established that belief in a god or gods is not required for one to be protected by the Constitution’s prohibitions against religious discrimination. And the court has specifically identified Humanism, the belief system that Espinosa identifies as his own, as one of the many “religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God.”

“In the prison context, atheism, agnosticism, Humanism, Ethical Culture, and Unitarian Universalism must receive the same constitutional protections as theistic belief systems,” the brief contends. “In a case with facts remarkably similar to those of the one at bar, the 7th Circuit held that a state prison violated the Establishment Clause by denying an atheist inmate the right to form an atheist study group.” 

If the district court’s decision is allowed to stand, it will not only cut against a considerable, long-standing body of case law, but will also run counter to the policies and practices now embraced by numerous government bodies, including state prison systems. As many prison systems have recognized, to deny Humanist and atheist inmates equal opportunity to meet as a group to discuss their beliefs would take away a unique opportunity for beneficial communal reflection and potential for positive growth.

FFRF has defended the rights of Humanist and atheist inmates seeking equal treatment in prison facilities around the country. As part of that effort, FFRF has successfully advocated for inmates within both the Virginia and the South Dakota Departments of Corrections who were unable to form study groups or meeting groups for like-minded nontheistic inmates.

Yet if the district court’s decision is upheld in this case, the Nevada Department of Corrections and Lovelock Correctional Center will be able to continue to arbitrarily and unjustly deny Nevada’s nontheistic inmates an equal opportunity to pursue similar beneficial group study and self-help.

The appeals court should reverse this unjust order.

“It’s distressing to observe such blatant discrimination against freethinking inmates,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The appellate court needs to restore their freedom of conscience.”

Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser agrees.

“Like the rights of all Americans, the rights of prisoners should never depend on whether they believe in a divine authority,” he says. “Prisons should give Humanist inmates the same rights that other inmates have to observe and study their beliefs.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s primary purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on the rights and views of atheists, agnostics, and other nontheists, including Humanists. FFRF attorneys Sam Grover and Colin McNamara were the primary drafters of the amicus brief, with filing assistance from Andrew Seidel.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a national, nonsectarian public-interest organization that is committed to preserving the constitutional principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state. Luchenitser contributed to the drafting of the brief.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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