FFRF, Americans United demand equality for Humanist prisoners

FFRF and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, two of the most prominent secular organizations in the United States, filed an amicus brief in appellate court on Feb. 27 over discriminatory official treatment of a Humanist inmate in Nevada.

The Nevada Department of Corrections and Lovelock Correctional Center denied a Humanist prisoner, Benjamin Espinosa, the opportunities accorded to dozens of “faith groups”: the ability to organize and meet. Shockingly, when Espinosa sued to exercise his rights on an equal basis with theistic prisoners, a district court ruled that Espinosa had no constitutional right to meet with other Humanist inmates, because Humanism doesn’t require the belief in a god.

The district court’s dangerous decision misapplies the law in a way that could undermine the rights of nontheists if it is upheld. Humanism is entitled to constitutional protection as a religion, FFRF and Americans United assert. Rolling back the clock to a time when the term “religion” referred only to “one’s views of his relations to his Creator,” the district court’s view is an anachronistic interpretation that runs counter to more than half a century of well-established legal precedent.

Nontheists, such as atheists and adherents of Humanism, Ethical Culture and Unitarian Universalism, are protected by the Constitution to the same extent as theists. The Supreme Court definitively established that belief in a god or gods is not required for one to be protected by the Constitution’s prohibitions against religious discrimination. And the court has specifically identified Humanism, the belief system that Espinosa identifies as his own, as one of the many “religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God.”

“In the prison context, atheism, agnosticism, Humanism, Ethical Culture, and Unitarian Universalism must receive the same constitutional protections as theistic belief systems,” the brief contends. “In a case with facts remarkably similar to those of the one at bar, the 7th Circuit held that a state prison violated the Establishment Clause by denying an atheist inmate the right to form an atheist study group.”

If the district court’s decision is allowed to stand, it will not only cut against a considerable, long-standing body of case law, but will also run counter to the policies and practices now embraced by numerous government bodies, including state prison systems.

If the district court’s decision is upheld, the Nevada Department of Corrections and Lovelock Correctional Center will be able to continue to arbitrarily and unjustly deny Nevada’s nontheistic inmates an equal opportunity to pursue similar beneficial group study and self-help.

The appeals court should reverse this unjust order.