Major Win for Atheist in Religious Drug Treatment Case

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of an atheist man from Missouri who was denied parole on a drug charge because he refused to submit to a religious rehab program and the state refused to send him to a secular one. The denial of his original grievance and his loss at the district court level are rather alarming, but it’s a good thing that the appeals court reversed them.

Randall Jackson was sent to Western Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center (WRDCC), a rehab program that required the saying of the famous serenity prayer and other religious elements. When Jackson complained about that, WRDCC told him to just pretend that it all meant something else. When he filed a grievance with the Missouri Department of Corrections and requested to be sent to a secular rehab program, he was denied. He appealed that denial and was again rejected and forced to stay in the program. He finally left the program and was then denied parole for failing to complete it.

As part of his requested relief, Jackson seeks the removal of “Alcoholics Anonymous [AA] and other religious components” from MDOC treatment programs. In dismissing Jackson’s suit with prejudice, the district court found that his claims failed because “personal involvement is a prerequisite to liability under § 1983,” and “withdrawing voluntarily from a program does not create a constitutional right to an early release.”

That is an appalling argument from the district court. The question is not whether he has a constitutional right to an early release, it’s that he was only denied an early release because he refused to have his constitutional right not to be forced into a religious rehab program violated.

The district court concluded, and the state argues on appeal, that Jackson voluntarily withdrew from the substance abuse program, and that voluntary withdrawal is fatal to his case. Jackson claims, however, that “[d]ue to the religious components of the program and lack of any foreseeable remedy, my choices were to withdraw from the program or remain exposed to those religious elements.” Whether Jackson’s withdrawal from the program was indeed voluntary (a word Jackson never uses in his complaint) or was the result of state-sponsored coercion is yet to be determined. At this stage of the litigation, dismissal of the complaint on this ground was premature.

We next evaluate Jackson’s constitutional claim. He alleges that 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. In Lee v. Weisman, the Supreme Court emphasized that, “at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise.” The Eighth Circuit has indicated that the Lee coercion test should also be applied in the prison context to assess the constitutionality of requiring or conditioning benefits on attendance at potentially religious treatment programs.

This is not a complete victory. The appeals court remanded it back to the district court to actually hold a trial in the case and issue a ruling. And with the district court being the same one that dismissed the case “with prejudice” in the first place, I’m skeptical that he can get a fair outcome. But then it would likely be appealed again to the much more reasonable appeals court. What needs to happen ultimately is that referrals to religious rehab programs as a condition of anything needs to be outlawed. It’s almost inconceivable how that could not be a violation of the First Amendment. You can read the full ruling here.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/set.v.kouwenhoven Set Kouwenhoven

    When I was much younger and much, MUCH dumber, I made the BRILLIANT decision to go for a drive after drinking far too much (in Missouri, as well). It didn’t end well and I ended up being sent to a weekend rehab retreat run by some guys from AA and it was all “God” this, “higher power” that—the worst was “you can’t get better until you submit yourself to God.”

    Anyway, on the second day I just said, “listen, I know I’m required to be here, but I should just let you know that I don’t believe in god, and this is making me very uncomfortable.”*

    One of the guys who ran the “retreat” said, “well, your higher power doesn’t have to be Jesus; it can be a rock, if you like.”

    I replied that that was an insult to both believers and atheists, and was pretty much ignored the rest of the weekend.

    Anyway, I guess I’m trying to say that this is really good news.

    *I should add that this was well before the rise of “popular atheism,” so my comment was received with probably more shock and disgust than it would be now.

  • Randomfactor

    MY higher power is tetration.

  • eric

    @1 – hindsight is 20/20, but I think a witty response to “it can be a rock, if you like” would’ve been: “Great! If that’s the case, how about you say ‘Rock’ where you would normally say ‘God’ for the rest of the course then?”

  • rabbitscribe

    If anyone’s interested in similar cases, look at Inouye v. Kemna and Michigan v. Joseph Raymond Hanas.

  • Trebuchet

    That legal phrase “with prejudice”, meaning the case cannot be refiled, has a whole different and appropriate meaning in this case!

  • http://www.cmccd.edu tinyal

    I have been fighting this fight – as an atheist/humanist – from within AA for over 2 decades now. I currently run a non-theist recovery meeting to meet the needs of the 15% (aprox) of those who encounter aa who are not religious. (the nontheist percent is much higher, of course, in every 1st world country other than the US).

    The amount of negative feedback is substantial – if I wasn’t so hard headed, the comments to me would do serious damage to my personality. (everything from I’m a disciple of satan, to I’m killing people by even suggesting people can – and do – stop or moderate their substance abuse without any god/s).

    The last few years I’ve seen hundreds of court-ordered people come to my meeting, and I’d say a significantly higher percent stay than at the standard meetings offered in the same building (I have no actual data of course, just my opinion).

    Here in the US, anything – absolutely anything that threatens the typical christianity is met with various types of force, all of it negative – and some of it quite physical. I do what I can to help others, but after this many years, I’m starting to get a little tired :(

  • timberwoof

    Tinyal, it’s time to prepare some replacements. What you do clearly has value, so find some strong people to take over for you. Do this before you burn out.

  • Olav

    Tinyal, you are a proper hero. I do hope your clients appreciate you. You do it for them after all, not for the evil minded idiots who criticise you.

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