Victory for atheist denied parole for not attending religious substance abuse program

A Missouri atheist who was denied probation because he refused to participate in a religious-based substance abuse program has won a legal victory against Western Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center (WRDCC) in St. Joseph.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled that the district court that dismissed Randall Jackson's lawsuit with prejudice erred in doing so. Jackson had sued the WRDCC because he claimed that, as an atheist, its Offenders Under Treatment Program (OUTP) violated his rights under the First Amendment.

According to Jackson, he was required to attend the OUTP in order to be eligible for early release on parole. Once there, he discovered that the program "had required meetings [and] invoked religious tenets by using the serenity prayer and religious meditations." When he objected to this, OUTP staff suggested he "act as if," a term of art in the program that means to "assume a role or attitude even if you don’t feel like it," which is "[a] tool used to assist one in ‘trying on’ new patterns of thought and behavior."

Staff further suggested that he "use 'God' as an acronym for 'good orderly direction.'"

In his initial complaint, Jackson stated that he "was being coerced by and through an atmosphere designed and intended to change or alter my thinking and behavior. That it would induce conformity by adding pressure and leverage through the hope and desire of achieving a ‘Placement on Parole.’”

He petitioned the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) to be placed in a secular treatment center, but his request was denied. Jackson believes that because of this denial -- and his subsequent inability to complete the substance abuse program -- he was declared ineligible for early release. Records from the MDOC Board of Probation and Parole back up his assertion, as they claim that "[b]ecause you have not completed a Board stipulated treatment program, the Board is denying your credit release date. Your previously scheduled release date will remain in effect."

The state claimed that Jackson could have "sat quietly" during OUTP meetings, and that would not have constituted "coercion" as defined by the Supreme Court. The Eight Circuit Court disagreed, stating that "[b]ased on the existing record, it is also unclear whether the state would have permitted Jackson to remain in, and graduate from, OUTP if he refrained from actively participating in only the faith-based portions of the curriculum."

It also claimed that while Jackson has no constitutionally guaranteed right to early parole, he "does have the right to be free from unconstitutional burdens when availing himself of existing ways to access the benefit of early parole. The fact that Jackson did not have a

constitutional right to, or statutory guarantee of, early parole does not preclude him from stating a claim of unconstitutional coercion."

Therefore, the Court decided, "being required to attend and complete a nonsecular substance abuse treatment program in order to be eligible for early parole violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."

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