Judge Says Prisoner Can’t Represent Fellow Atheist Inmates in Class-Action Lawsuit Over Religious Treatment Programs May 11, 2015

Judge Says Prisoner Can’t Represent Fellow Atheist Inmates in Class-Action Lawsuit Over Religious Treatment Programs

Atheist Randall Jackson had been serving time in the Western Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center in St. Joseph, Missouri for “offenses related to driving while intoxicated” 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 was some good news last March: the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit 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 could gather, there was 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, this was the right call.

Last November, on the advice of his attorney, Jackson resubmitted his case as a class-action lawsuit. Basically, he was saying that the earlier legal victory applied only to him… but it should apply to all atheists in his situation:

The proposed class is “all prisoners under the current or future control of the Missouri Department of Corrections who do not believe in a god.” The proposed subclass is “all prisoners under the current or future control of the Missouri Department of Corrections who do not believe in a god who are eligible for substance abuse treatment programs.”

In order to sue on behalf of an entire class, though, there are some legal hurdles you must overcome. For example, you have to prove there really are other people out there just like you.

And that’s where Jackson lost the court.

The same judge who first ruled against Jackson in 2012 has now stopped him from filing a class-action claim. In short, says the judge, there’s just no proof that there are lots of atheists in Missouri prisons who may have to go through religious treatment programs:

Plaintiff bases his assertion that the numerosity requirement is met purely on statistics. Plaintiff indicates that (1) Missouri prisons contain approximately 30,000 prisoners, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of justice Statistics; (2) according to a 2012 Pew Research poll, persons who self-identify as atheists and agnostics represent approximately 5.7% of the U.S. population; and (3) therefore, plaintiff estimates that approximately 1,710 inmates may be atheist or agnostic, and even if only 1% of the prison population was atheist/agnostic, that would still be approximately 300 individuals. Plaintiff makes no attempt to identify how many people would be part of the subclass of those who were eligible to participate in substance abuse treatment programs.

The Court finds, after considering the arguments raised by the parties, that plaintiff has not met his burden to demonstrate numerosity

Dan Margolies of KCUR points out that there may be a silver lining:

[U.S. District Judge Fernando J. Gaitan Jr.] didn’t slam the door entirely on Jackson, however. He said if Jackson were able to develop evidence supporting numerosity, “the Court may reconsider its position.”

So this ruling is actually a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the ruling in Jackson’s favor doesn’t apply to other atheists in his situation. The reason for that, however, is that there may not be other atheists in his situation.

I’ve pointed out on this site before that the atheist population in federal prison is astonishingly low. While that doesn’t necessarily apply to Missouri prisons specifically, the likely absence of atheists in prison who need to go through substance abuse programs (preventing this case from moving forward) isn’t exactly a bad thing.

(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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