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American Atheists Sues West Virginia for Forcing Religion on Incarcerated People

Charleston, WV—Today, the civil rights organization American Atheists filed a federal lawsuit against the leadership of the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (WVDCR). American Atheists is representing Andrew Miller, an atheist and Secular Humanist whom the defendants are forcing to participate in religious activities in order to be eligible for parole. Despite repeated requests, the defendants have failed to accommodate his Secular Humanist beliefs. Mountain State Justice will serve as local counsel for this matter.

The lawsuit alleges violations of Andrew’s constitutional rights and his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). American Atheists is seeking a preliminary injunction preventing WVDCR officials from penalizing Andrew for exercising his rights as an atheist and Secular Humanist.

Andrew first encountered religious coercion in June 2021, upon entering West Virginia’s Saint Marys Correctional Center and Jail corrections facility, where he was required to practice Christianity. In order to be considered for parole, Andrew must complete the state’s federally funded Residential Substance Use Treatment (RSAT) program, which is infused with Christian practices. For example, the RSAT reading material itself is overwhelmingly Christian, and much of it was developed by Texas Christian University. Further, the RSAT program requires attendance at daily Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which include recitation of the Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer. Multiple courts have determined that twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are pervasively religious.

“West Virginia, like too many states, is forcing Christianity on the people incarcerated in their facilities as a condition of release,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists. “Attacks like this on the rights of atheists, humanists, and any non-Christian person who interacts with the West Virginia Division of Corrections are ongoing and widespread. For many corrections officials, spreading religious propaganda is more important than respecting people’s rights or the Constitution.”

“No one should be compelled to sacrifice their moral or religious creed to obtain release from incarceration in West Virginia. Mountain State Justice is proud to work with American Atheists to stand up for Mr. Miller’s right to follow his conscience and Secular Humanist beliefs,” said Lesley Nash, Mountain State Justice attorney.

Twelve-step programs are expressly hostile to nonbelievers. Step 3 calls on participants to “turn [their] will and [their] lives over to the care of God as [they] understood him.” Step 11 tells them to “[seek] through prayer and meditation to improve [their] conscious contact with God as [they] understood him, praying only for knowledge of His will for [them] and the power to carry that out.” In the “Big Book,” the foundational document of these programs, “Chapter 4: We Agnostics” tells atheists and agnostics that they are “doomed to alcoholic death” unless they “seek Him.” The chapter goes on to deride the nonreligious as “handicapped by obstinacy, sensitiveness, and unreasoning prejudice.” It even propounds the dismissive fallacy that “in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God.”

American Atheists has supported legislation to require that the criminal justice system inform defendants of their right to a secular recovery option, such as SMART Recovery or LifeRing. Although one such bill passed in New York, it was vetoed by Governor Hochul in December 2022. That same year, United Airlines was forced to pay a Buddhist pilot $305,000 for trying to force him into a religious twelve-step program.

“This is an important lawsuit for religious freedom and equality,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “Atheists, agnostics, and Secular Humanists have rights. And those rights do not get set aside simply because a person is incarcerated. If anything, these circumstances are when we must most zealously guard against government infringement on our right to live by our consciences.”

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