Atheist Randall Jackson had been serving time in the Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in St. Joseph, Missouri when he learned about an opportunity to get early release on parole — all he had to do was attend the center’s “Offenders Under Treatment Program.”
Just one problem: The program was faith-based, requiring him to both pray and acknowledge the existence of God. (Another treatment program promoted Alcoholics Anonymous which is also religious in nature.) When Jackson objected, the response wasn’t very helpful:
When Jackson objected to the prayer, [program director Ms.] Salsbury and other staff advised him to “act as if,” a term used in the program, meaning to “assume a role or attitude even if you don’t feel like it” and further defined as “[a] tool used to assist one in ‘trying on’ new patterns of thought and behavior.”… Salsbury and staff suggested that Jackson “use God as an acronym for ‘good orderly direction.’”
Jackson eventually asked to be transferred to a secular treatment program — but his request was denied. Instead of lying and playing the game, he chose not to enroll in OUTP… and was later denied an early release.
He filed a lawsuit but it was rejected by a lower court. However, there’s good news for him now: the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has overturned that decision and ruled 2-1 in favor of Jackson:
The Missouri Board of Probation and Parole may have discretion in deciding whether to grant early parole to an OUTP graduate, but that fact alone does not shield the defendants from potential liability for implementing a program that is alleged to violate the First Amendment.
We conclude, based on the allegations in the complaint, that Randall Jackson has pled facts sufficient to state a claim that a parole stipulation requiring him to attend and complete a substance abuse program with religious content in order to be eligible for early parole violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
From what I can gather, there’s nothing in the ruling denouncing the religious program itself, only that Jackson should have been given a similar secular option. I’m not sure why a taxpayer-funded religious program should be allowed in the first place. Still, for his sake and for the sake of the handful of future atheist inmates, this was the right call.
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