In 2015, atheist Mark Janny was released from jail. (The reason he was there is irrelevant to this story.) His parole officer, John Gamez, told Janny that if he wanted to remain out of prison, he would have to live at the Denver Rescue Mission, a Christian homeless shelter.
That shelter’s rules required residents to participate in worship services, Bible studies, and faith-based counseling, none of which Janny had any desire to join. Nor should he have had to! It’s not like he was hiding his atheism. The courts should never have forced him to attend a Christian anything as a requirement of his parole.
Janny actually suggested an alternative: staying at the home of some family friends. But that was rejected. So Janny went to the shelter… but didn’t participate in the religious activities. And because of that, Gamez revoked his parole and sent Janny back to jail for five more months.
He sued. It didn’t go well. He represented himself in court, which didn’t help, and the district court eventually dismissed the case.
But now the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are working with Janny and appealing that ruling. There’s firepower behind his case now.
Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director at Americans United: “Mark Janny’s parole officer teamed up with shelter administrators to coerce Mark into practicing a faith that is not his own. And when Mark refused to submit to this proselytization, his parole officer retaliated by throwing Mark back in jail. Not only did these actions violate Mark’s religious freedom, but they also represent an alarming example of authority figures taking advantage of a vulnerable man.”
Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief: “Throwing someone behind bars for refusing to attend church services is blatantly unconstitutional. Government officials can’t abuse their positions of power to convert parolees, or anyone else, to their preferred faith.”
The groups are asking the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review the case, saying that the earlier court “wrongly dismissed Janny’s case, which asserted violations of his First Amendment rights.”
Under no circumstances should anyone be forced by the government to go through a religious program in order to fulfill some legal obligation. There were alternatives available in this case, and even if there weren’t, making someone practice Christianity in order to avoid prison time is beyond reasonable. Everyone involved in prolonging Janny’s imprisonment should be penalized for their actions.
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