After a federal judge said Humanism doesn’t count as a “religion” when it comes to a non-religious federal prisoner who just wanted the same perks and privileges offered to his religious colleagues, the American Humanist Association is filing an appeal. And they have support from two other major groups promoting church/state separation.
This case was originally filed in October of 2016. 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 those gatherings.
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, in December, 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 said what Espinosa was lacking, but it was distressing that a non-theistic belief prevented an inmate from being able to discuss his beliefs with others, see a chaplain, receive books promoting those beliefs, or experience a variety of other simple gestures afforded to religious prisoners.
Last week, the AHA filed a formal appeal in the Ninth Circuit.
“The District Court’s decision overtly discriminates against Humanists, favors theism over nontheism, and flouts decades of Supreme Court precedent,” said Monica Miller, senior counsel for the AHA. “Not only did the Supreme Court make clear decades ago that Secular Humanism is deemed a religion for constitutional purposes, but it has also repeatedly held that the government is forbidden from promoting religion over nonreligion.”
Roy Speckhardt, executive director of AHA agrees. “Our Constitution doesn’t allow government to favor one religion over another or religion itself over nonreligion. That’s why it’s discriminatory and illegal for the government to accommodate traditional religious groups, but disallow otherwise identically structured humanist and nonreligious groups.”
The AHA is now getting help from both the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The groups filed a joint amicus brief in defense of the AHA and Espinosa.
“Like the rights of all Americans, the rights of prisoners should never depend on whether they believe in a divine authority,” said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. “Prisons should give Humanist inmates the same rights that other inmates have to observe and study their beliefs.”
“It’s distressing to observe such blatant discrimination against freethinking inmates,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The appellate court needs to restore their freedom of conscience.”
In addition to arguing that the law requires the government to treat Humanism no different from theistic religions, they also claim that godless ideologies are now “commonly recognized as alternatives to mainstream religions” and that Humanist gatherings “can have a significant, positive impact on nontheistic inmates.”
This case really boils down to whether atheists deserve the same rights under the law as religious people, even if our theological beliefs don’t involve a mythical being. We’ll find out soon enough if that’s how the courts see it too.
(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)