An Atheist Prisoner Had to Enroll in a Religious Treatment Program for a Chance At Early Release

Once again, a federal prison is punishing an inmate for his atheism.

A letter sent today by the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center and the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections says that an atheist inmate at SCI Chester was told he had to participate in a religious “Therapeutic Community program” for a chance at early release… or remain in prison for his maximum sentence.


When the prisoner asked for a secular alternative for the drug treatment program, he was told there was none and that the religious program was mandatory.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections cannot promote religion or require inmates to participate in religious programs to receive benefits. Doing so violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which guarantees that all citizens have the right to be free from religious coercion by the state,” said Monica Miller, senior counsel at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor is concerned about the message that the Pennsylvania Department of Correction’s action is sending.

“It’s more than distressing to see a nonreligious inmate forced either to partake in religious therapy offensive to his conscience, or be punished with continuing imprisonment,” she says. “Professed piety cannot be used as a ‘get out of jail’ card, nor may nonreligious inmates be denied secular therapy.”

Both groups have asked the prison system to turn over, within 10 days, all public records detailing the requirements and expectations of the Therapeutic Community program.

It’s not like alternatives don’t exist. The letter mentions SMART Recovery as one possible secular option for inmates who aren’t religious. And that’s all this prisoner is asking for: Another option that’s more likely to help him get over his addiction. No one’s preventing religious inmates from choosing a program that caters to their beliefs, but what good would it do to push religion on someone who doesn’t want it or need it?

It shouldn’t take a lawsuit — or the threat of one — to sort this out.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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