Leah Willingham, Associated Press Published

Judge: W.Va. Can’t Require Incarcerated Atheist To Participate In Religious Programming

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A federal judge in West Virginia has ruled that the state corrections agency can’t force an incarcerated atheist and secular humanist to participate in religiously-affiliated programming to be eligible for parole.

In a sweeping 60-page decision issued Tuesday, Charleston-based U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Goodwin said Saint Marys Correctional Center inmate Andrew Miller “easily meets his threshold burden of showing an impingement on his rights.”

The state’s “unmitigated actions force Mr. Miller to choose between two distinct but equally irreparable injuries,” the judge wrote. He can either “submit to government coercion and engage in religious exercise at odds with his own beliefs,” or “remain incarcerated until at least April 2025.”

Goodwin issued a preliminary injunction requiring West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials to remove completion of a state-run and federally-funded residential substance abuse program from Miller’s parole eligibility requirements. The agency did not return a request for comment Thursday.

Miller filed suit in a federal district court in April alleging the state is forcing Christianity on incarcerated people and has failed to accommodate repeated requests to honor his lack of belief in God.

The suit claimed Miller encountered “religious coercion” in June 2021 when he entered the Pleasants County correctional facility. Miller is serving a one- to 10-year, nondeterminative sentence for breaking and entering.

Substance use was not a factor in his offense, but Miller was enrolled in the program because he is in recovery from addiction.

He alleged the federally-funded substance abuse treatment program — which is a requirement for his parole consideration — is “infused with Christian practices,” including Christian reading materials and mandated Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, where the Serenity and Lord’s Prayer are recited.

Due to the religious elements of the program, Miller withdrew from it after five days at Saint Marys. Prior to incarceration, he received secular treatment and maintained his sobriety for four years, according to his suit.

Multiple courts have determined that step-based programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are religious-based programs because they are predicated on the existence of a higher power or a God. Steps ask participants to turn their “lives over to the care of God” and encourage prayer to improve “conscious contact with God.”

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 characterizes non-believers as “handicapped by obstinacy, sensitiveness, and unreasoning prejudice.”

In his decision, Goodwin said although West Virginia’s “longstanding” program has never faced judicial scrutiny, other courts have found them to contain “such substantial religious components that governmentally compelled participation” violates the First Amendment.

“I have been provided with no evidence that West Virginia’s program is any less religious or less coercive than the programs invalidated in other jurisdictions,” Goodwin said.

The Parole Board Panel interviewed Miller three times and declined to grant him parole. Miller alleged that his failure to complete the program contributed significantly to the Board’s decision to deny him parole, something the state did not dispute.

“Although Mr. Miller has no entitlement to parole, the record strongly suggests that he would already have been released, but for maintaining his objections to an unconstitutional policy,” Goodwin said.

Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists who represented Miller along with nonprofit legal services organization Mountain State Justice, on Wednesday called the ruling “a complete vindication of Andrew’s rights under the law.”

“Without Andrew’s willingness to take on this fight, West Virginia would continue to unconstitutionally impose religion on people in its corrections system,” he said. American Atheists is an organization that fights for atheists’ civil liberties and advocates the separation of church and state in the U.S.

Lesley Nash, an attorney with Mountain State Justice, said the organization is pleased the court protected Miller’s rights when the state did not.

“No one should be forced to set aside their moral or religious creed as a precondition of their parole,” Nash said.