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 in March of 2014: 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.
It was absolutely the right call.
That November, however, 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 were some legal hurdles he had to overcome. For example, he had to prove there really were other people out there just like him.
And that’s where Jackson lost the court.
The same judge who first ruled against Jackson in 2012, Fernando Gaitan Jr., stopped him from filing the class-action claim in 2015. In short, said Gaitan, there was just no proof that there were lots of atheists in Missouri prisons who had to go through religious substance abuse 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…
The one silver lining here was that if Jackson could somehow definitively show that atheists fit in that category — instead of just trying to use nebulous statistics to suggest they exist — the case could be reconsidered.
Today, however, the case was thrown out by Gaitan:
… Gaitan ruled this week that the case is moot because Jackson has served his prison sentence and is no longer incarcerated. And he found that Jackson had failed to demonstrate MDOC’s failure to include “atheist” on intake forms had substantially burdened his practice of religion.
“Where, as here, plaintiff has testified that he needs no accommodations in order to practice his belief or religion, there is no evidence that the defendants have attempted to advance one belief system over another,” Gaitan wrote in his 40-page order.
The MDOC asked prisoners for their religion, the judge argued, so they could make necessary accommodations if they were required, but not subscribing to those religions didn’t mean they used that information against you.
But did Jackson have a secular alternative to the religious programs? In 2014, the Court of Appeals said no and awarded Jackson a victory. When he resubmitted the case as a class action suit, that victory was essentially nullified. Now we are back to square one, and the question is back on the table.
“There’s still going to be a trial of some sort, either in front of the judge or in front of a jury as to whether or not the rehabilitation programs violated his First Amendment rights,” Jackson’s attorney, Christopher Hoffman of St. Louis, said in a phone interview. “As the judge acknowledged in his order, leading mental health professionals, even in the department of corrections, do not believe in the central tenets of AA and similar 12-step programs.”
Hoffman also said he plans to file a motion next week to have the case certified as a class action.
“This is not just relevant to people who are atheists,” Hoffman said. “It’s relevant to anybody who has a substance abuse problem and who may find themselves in the custody of the Missouri Department of Corrections and seeks a scientifically based drug rehabilitation program.”
So the case continues despite the temporary setback.
(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)