Last Thursday, Federal District Judge Ancer Haggerty ruled on American Humanist Association v. United States. The case was brought by prisoner Jason Michael Holden, in conjunction with the American Humanist Association, because, as ThinkProgress reports, Holden “wanted Humanism… recognized as a religion so that his prison would allow for the creation of a Humanist study group.”
Two years after he entered 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. According to the lawsuit,
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.
Simply put, if you said you were religious, you got a number of perks not afforded to non-religious groups. But since the Federal Bureau of Prisons didn’t give Humanist inmates that option, they were left without a “religion” that accurately described them — as well as the perks they would otherwise be granted.
While officials relented after Holden and the AHA brought suit, they argued in court that denying Holden’s request was not a violation of his rights, as (among other contentions) “plaintiffs have failed to show that Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes.”
Ruling with the plaintiffs, Judge Haggerty cited a growing consensus of opinion that Secular Humanism is, in fact, protected with other belief sets:
… the Ninth Circuit appears to be moving toward the view that the disparate treatment of theistic and non-theistic religions is as offensive to the Establishment Clause as disparate treatment of theistic religions… Such a view is consistent with longstanding Supreme Court jurisprudence. In Torcaso v Watkins, the Supreme Court said that the government must not aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs… Therefore, the court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes and that plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.
While it remains unfortunate that the only manner in which such rights can be protected is under the umbrella of “religion,” this is nonetheless a significant victory for Humanists’ legal rights under the Establishment Clause.
(Image via Shutterstock. Portions of this article were published earlier)