A federal judge said this week that Humanism doesn’t count as a “religion” in a case in which an atheist prisoner wanted the same perks and privileges offered to his religious colleagues.
The case was filed last October. Benjamin Espinosa, an inmate at Northern Nevada Correctional Center, said he just wanted to start a Humanist study group, much like Christian inmates who get together to study the Bible. But he wasn’t able to do that — or a lot of other things religious inmates could do — because the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDoC) said he wasn’t part of a recognized faith group.
Here’s what Espinosa was asking for since it’s what all the other inmates got:
(1) ability to meet with community-funded or volunteer chaplains on a regular basis; (2) ability to keep religious items both in their cells and in faith group storage containers in the prison chapel; (3) eligibility for enrollment in a religious correspondence course; (4) to have community chaplain perform religious rites/rituals; (5) work proscription days and observance of holidays; and (6) to receive donated materials or to purchase items such as books, DVDs, and various articles such as medallions, crosses, crystals, herbs, incense, etc.
In addition to not being able to do the secular equivalents of all that, he also wasn’t able to schedule meeting times the same way, nor was he given a venue for the meetings.
The most direct way to resolve all this would have been to get the NDoC to recognize “Humanism” as an “approved” religion, so in 2014, Espinosa began filling out the appropriate paperwork to make that happen. Every time he sent something in, he was ignored.
So after more than two years of unsuccessfully lobbying for equal treatment, he filed a lawsuit with the help of the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center.
“All prisoners should be granted basic rights and human dignity, but the Nevada Department of Corrections is unjustly discriminating against humanists,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “Prisoners are already maligned by our society, and denying humanist inmates the right to practice and derive comfort from their deeply held convictions further strips them of their humanity.”
“The Federal Bureau of Prisons recognizes humanism for official assignment purposes and permits humanist study groups to meet,” said Monica Miller, senior counsel at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, in reference to the American Humanist Association’s successful settlement of a lawsuit on behalf of humanist, federal inmate Jason Holden. “The Nevada Department of Corrections is violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment by denying privileges to humanist inmates that are accorded to theistic inmates.”
There may be a philosophical question of whether atheism/Humanism should be called religions at all, but prisoners should have access to the same “perks” no matter what their theological beliefs are. That’s what this case was really about.
Unfortunately, Espinosa will have to wait longer for justice.
U.S. District Judge Robert C. Jones said in his decision that the prisoner “had not alleged how his Humanist beliefs differed from traditional secular moral philosophy in a way sufficient to qualify as a religion under the religion clauses.”
The Court has no basis to doubt Plaintiff’s sincerity as to his professed beliefs and of course has no opinion as to the value of those beliefs, but the allegations in the [First Amended Complaint] confirm that despite the title Plaintiff gives his belief system (“Religious Humanism”), it is not a religion for the purposes of the religion clauses.
Jones never explains what Espinosa is lacking, but it’s distressing that a non-theistic belief prevents an inmate from being able to discuss his faith with others, see a chaplain, receive books promoting those beliefs, and experience a variety of other simple gestures afforded to religious prisoners.
The AHA hasn’t issued a public statement as of this writing, but Legal Director David Niose said they will be appealing the decision. He also noted that, “in order to rule against us, the judge had to reject the magistrate’s decision which went the other way.”