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. And he shouldn’t 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. 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.
In June of 2020, the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State worked with Janny to appeal that decision, meaning they were putting the weight of their organizations behind his case.
Yesterday, we learned that it all paid off. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit overturned the dismissal, 2-1, and agreed that Janny didn’t deserve to be punished for not taking part in religious worship. At the very least, he can pursue his lawsuit.
… the Tenth Circuit recognized that every person has “the basic right to be free from state-sponsored religious coercion” in today’s ruling, which reversed the district court’s decision and determined that Janny may take his case to trial.
Americans United and the ACLU issued the following statements in response to today’s decision:
Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director at Americans United: “This is a victory for Mark and for religious freedom. Our country’s fundamental principle of church-state separation guarantees that everyone has the right to believe, or not, as they choose. That means that our government must never force anyone to practice a faith that is not their own, and of course must never jail anyone for refusing to submit to religious proselytization.”
Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief: “The government presented Mr. Janny with a blatantly unconstitutional choice: Go to church, or go to jail. As the court’s decision makes clear, the First Amendment flatly prohibits such religious coercion, and state officials should know better.”
To be clear, this isn’t over. The ruling simply allows the case to move forward instead of being blocked from proceeding. Janny still needs to win his case. But without this decision, that wasn’t even a possibility.
There was also an issue regarding who Janny could sue and whether certain people had qualified immunity. The district court had said the parole officer didn’t violate Janny’s First Amendment rights. But the appeals court overturned that decision, saying that if they let the immunity stand, it would violate the “basic right to be free from state-sponsored religious coercion.”
Attorney Heather Lynn Weaver, who worked on this case with the ACLU, put it to me this way: “The parole officer definitely should have known better but instead ignored the First Amendment. Denials of qualified immunity, even for flagrant constitutional violations such as those in this case, are all too rare.”
As I said before, under no circumstances should anyone be forced by the government to go through a religious program in order to fulfill some legal obligation. To make someone practice Christianity in order to avoid prison time is beyond unreasonable. Everyone involved in prolonging Janny’s imprisonment should be penalized for their actions.
(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)