The Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Oregon is a prison with nearly 2,000 inmates. Those inmates, upon arrival, can designate a religious preference — which is how we know the religious makeup of inmates who volunteer that information.
The list of available religions, as you can see, doesn’t include Humanism.
And now an inmate is suing to change that.
Jason Michael Holden is an inmate at FCI Sheridan and a member of the Humanist Community of Silicon Valley. He, like the American Humanist Association, sees his beliefs as a religion:
Humanism is Holden’s religion, which comforts and guides him in the way that religions traditionally provide such comfort and guidance. By practicing Humanist principles in his relationships, he is confident that he is acting in a positive way. Seeing things through a Humanist lens creates within him a spiritual connection with the natural world. Humanism gives Holden inner peace and security and has helped him realize the natural gift of his life.
For him, Humanism goes far beyond mere atheism. Atheism is an inaccurate way to describe him, he argues. It’s like describing a Muslim as a “theist” — too vague to be useful.
Almost exactly two years ago (which was about two years after he entered the prison), Holden requested that his religious designation in the prison system be “Humanist”… but he was told that, since that wasn’t an option, he could just check the box marked “atheist.” He did… but that meant giving up a few of the privileges afforded to religious inmates:
Inmates who are members of FCI-recognized religions receive the following rights and benefits: (1) “proscription days” for religious holidays; (2) at least one hour of classroom/study time a week; (3) at least one hour of worship time each week; (4) the ability to congregate with other members of the religious group.
Humanist inmates cannot meet in study groups in the same way inmates who are members of FCI-recognized religions can meet.
Humanist inmates at FCI Sheridan have no venue for meetings.
Atheist inmates at FCI Sheridan have no venue for meetings.
Inmates are not allowed to assemble in groups of more than four at recreation.
FCI-recognized religious inmates are permitted to meet in groups of more than four to discuss their religious beliefs with each other during a designated time period.
You can see the problem here. If you say you’re religious, you get a number of perks not afforded to non-religious groups. Atheism is arguably not a religion; Humanism, however, is. But since the Federal Bureau of Prisons doesn’t give Humanist inmates that option, they’re left without a religion that accurately describes them — as well as the perks they would otherwise be granted.
With all that in mind, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center has filed a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and several of its officials to change that.
“The federal prison system has unfairly discriminated against atheist and humanist inmates simply because they lack a belief in God,” said Monica Miller, attorney for the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “It’s unconstitutional for the prison to give inmates of theistic religions special treatment. Humanist inmates should be entitled to meet and study together to the same degree as their theistic counterparts.”
Holden went through a long chain of command, by the way, to get Humanism on the list, but those in charge kept denying his request, leading to the AHA’s lawsuit.
The issue at play seems to be one of ignorance. The Federal Bureau of Prisons thinks it has all the major belief systems covered, but the AHA lists reason after reason why Humanism should be considered a religion alongside the other options on the list. This should represent a quick and easy change — it’s amazing it hasn’t happened already — especially when you consider, as the lawsuit notes, that “in the time that Holden has been incarcerated at FCI Sheridan, at least seven other inmates at FCI Sheridan selected the religious assignment ‘Atheist’ after requesting ‘Humanist’ and being told it was not an option.”
This isn’t just an isolated incident. There are undoubtedly more Humanists in the prison system than, say, members of the Baha’i faith. (Or should I say “member”…) But the latter gets all the benefits of religion while the former gets none.