In Lawsuit, Prisoner Says Nevada Officials Discriminated Against Him for Being an Atheist

Once again, an atheist prisoner is being treated differently from his religious counterparts, and he’s filing a lawsuit to fix the problem.

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Benjamin Espinosa, an inmate at Northern Nevada Correctional Center, says he just wanted to start a Humanist study group, much like Christian inmates who get together to study the Bible.

But because he’s not part of a faith group recognized by the Nevada Department of Corrections, he wasn’t given access to all the perks that God-believers get:

(1) ability to meet with community-funded or volunteer chaplains on a regular basis; (2) ability to keep religious items both in their cells and in faith group storage containers in the prison chapel; (3) eligibility for enrollment in a religious correspondence course; (4) to have community chaplain perform religious rites/rituals; (5) work proscription days and observance of holidays; and (6) to receive donated materials or to purchase items such as books, DVDs, and various articles such as medallions, crosses, crystals, herbs, incense, etc.

He also wasn’t able to schedule meeting times the same way, nor was he given a venue for the meetings.

In 2014, Espinosa filled out the requisite form to add Humanist to the list of religions “approved” by the NDoC… and they promptly ignored him. When he filed a formal grievance later on, it was denied.

So was another that he filed later.

So was a third.

Are you seeing the pattern yet?

After spending more than two years and three months trying to get his beliefs recognized by Nevada officials, and receiving nothing but rejection (when they weren’t outright ignoring him), the only option left was a lawsuit.

That’s what the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center filed yesterday:

“All prisoners should be granted basic rights and human dignity, but the Nevada Department of Corrections is unjustly discriminating against humanists,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “Prisoners are already maligned by our society, and denying humanist inmates the right to practice and derive comfort from their deeply held convictions further strips them of their humanity.”

“The Federal Bureau of Prisons recognizes humanism for official assignment purposes and permits humanist study groups to meet,” said Monica Miller, senior counsel at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, in reference to the American Humanist Association’s successful settlement of a lawsuit on behalf of humanist, federal inmate Jason Holden. “The Nevada Department of Corrections is violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment by denying privileges to humanist inmates that are accorded to theistic inmates.”

The lawsuit is asking for the NDoC to treat Humanism the same way they do other beliefs as well as monetary costs. It’s hard to see how state officials will be allowed to get away with this. There may be a philosophical question of whether atheism or Humanism should be called a religion, but prisoners should have access to the same “perks” no matter what their theological beliefs are.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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