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.