(Mechanicsburg, PA, Jan. 13, 2017)—The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center and Freedom From Religion Foundation criticize the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for unconstitutionally requiring an inmate to participate in a religious program as a condition of parole.
The inmate, who identifies as an atheist, is required to participate in the Therapeutic Community program as part of his correctional plan. When he objected to the religious elements of the program and requested to enroll in an alternative, secular program, he was informed that his only alternative was to remain imprisoned for his maximum sentence. In response to this violation of the inmate’s constitutional rights, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center and Freedom From Religion Foundation demand that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections turn over copies of materials from the Therapeutic Community program, including those that mention faith, a higher power or other religious concepts to ensure that participation in a religious program is not a condition of parole.
“The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections cannot promote religion or require inmates to participate in religious programs to receive benefits. Doing so violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which guarantees that all citizens have the right to be free from religious coercion by the state,” said Monica Miller, senior counsel at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.
“While the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections certainly should provide drug treatment programs, forcing someone to attend a religious treatment program to receive parole blatantly discriminates against atheists and nonreligious inmates,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “There are plenty of secular treatment programs, such as SMART Recovery, which are inclusive to both religious and nonreligious individuals because they do not mention religious issues.”
“Prisons are an inherently coercive environment where inmates are under intense pressure to comply with officers’ orders and state-sponsored programs,” notes Freedom From Religion Foundation Staff Attorney Sam Grover. “Inmates necessarily give up many rights when placed behind bars, but they retain their right of conscience and their free exercise right to reject religion. Our letter asks the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to respect that right.”
Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor is concerned about the message that the Pennsylvania Department of Correction’s action is sending.
“It’s more than distressing to see a nonreligious inmate forced either to partake in religious therapy offensive to his conscience, or be punished with continuing imprisonment,” she says. “Professed piety cannot be used as a ‘get out of jail’ card, nor may nonreligious inmates be denied secular therapy.”
The American Humanist Association and Freedom From Religion Foundation give the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections 10 days to turn over the requested materials in a letter, which can be viewed here.
Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, DC, the American Humanist Association (AHA) works to protect the rights of humanists, atheists, and other nontheistic Americans. The AHA advances the ethical and life-affirming philosophy of humanism, which—without beliefs in any gods or other supernatural forces—encourages individuals to live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good of humanity.
Special thanks to the Louis J. Appignani Foundation for their support of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (www.ffrf.org), based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation’s largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate. The organization has more than 26,000 nonreligious members and chapters all over the country, including 800-plus and two chapters in Pennsylvania.