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10th Circuit Finds Atheist Rights Infringed Through Christian Parole Program | Courts

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A Fort Collins parole officer and the operator of a Christian transition program violated a man’s First Amendment rights if, in fact, they forced him to participate in a religious program or go to jail, the Denver federal appeals court ruled on Friday.

U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Reinstates Trial of Atheist Mark Janny, Who Was Eventually Subjected To 150 Days In Detention For Refusing To Attend Morning Prayer And Study Bible studies at the Fort Collins Rescue Mission, where his parole officer had directed him to live.

It was well established, wrote judge Carolyn B. McHugh in the opinion of the court of August 6, “that a state actor violates the free exercise clause by forcing or forcing to participate in religious activity against his expressly declared beliefs.”

Janny argued at the 10th Circuit that while the state of Colorado did not create the content of the Rescue Mission’s programming, the actions of parole officer John Gamez amounted to the government forcing Janny to participate in a religion.

“There is no doubt that the government cannot force the choice between going to church or going to jail. That’s what happened here, ”lawyer Charles B. Wayne told the three-judge appeal panel during oral argument. “The state knew the content of the program and in this case required the parolee to participate.

The decision comes a week after a separate 10th Circuit panel issued another major ruling on religious freedom. In 303 Creative v. Elenis, a 2-1 ruling claimed that Colorado’s anti-discrimination law required a Christian graphic designer to create wedding websites for same-sex couples, in violation of her religious beliefs.

On Friday, Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and general counsel of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the two decisions complement each other.

“At a time when many religious extremists are trying to falsely use religious freedom as a sword that harms others, the two recent decisions in Janny and 303 Creative show that the 10th Circuit correctly understands the concept of religious freedom, ”he said. “Freedom of religion protects you from government pressure to participate in or believe in a religion. Religious freedom does not give anyone the right to ignore civil rights laws that guarantee equality for all.

Americans United represented Janny on appeal.

According to Janny, he was paroled on February 2, 2015, and Gamez ordered him to reside at the rescue mission and obey his “house rules.” (The Fort Collins site is one of the locations from the Denver Rescue Mission.) Initially, Janny offered to live with a friend, but Gamez vetoed the idea, apparently because he believed the friend was involved in illegal drugs.

The parole officer explained to Janny that he was friends with the director of the rescue mission, Jim Carmack. Carmack was willing to take on Janny as a “guinea pig” to be the first male released on parole on the rescue mission, as a favor to Gamez.

The mission, whose motto is “Changing lives in the name of Christ“demanded that participants attend and participate in prayers, Bible studies and individual religious counseling. In a meeting with Carmack upon his arrival at the rescue mission, Janny expressed his belief that the” rules of home “were a violation of his Carmack allegedly told Janny he would comply with the program or go to jail.

“This is not the way the United States works,” protested Janny.

Janny, Carmack, and Gamez then met at Gamez’s office, where Gamez reportedly reiterated the directive to Janny. Carmack then requested that Janny’s curfew, as reflected in his electronic monitoring device, be moved earlier so that Janny could attend the daily chapel service.

Over the next few days, Janny repeatedly opposed mandatory religious programming. The deputy headmaster reportedly asked Janny if the rescue mission “grew on him”, to which Janny replied that he was “more prisoner here than ever”.

After Janny skipped several church services, Carmack told him he couldn’t be on the rescue mission anymore. Janny is said to have left the mission and stayed with a friend. His electronic monitor recorded the movement and Gamez requested an arrest warrant.

Janny reportedly tried to look for an alternative treatment center the next day, but when he was unsuccessful he reported to his parole office. He was arrested and his parole revoked for 150 days.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from forcing a person to attend or refrain from religious services, and the free exercise clause guarantees a person’s right to adhere to religious beliefs they hold. chosen. The 10th Circuit panel observed that previous courts have found it unconstitutional to require a prisoner, parolee or probationer to attend a religious program.

For example, the New York-based Second Circuit ruled in 1996 that a man on probation was forced to attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, where participants were asked to “pray to God to help them overcome their affliction.” Like Janny, the government gave no alternative for treatment.

As a result, Gamez was told that his purported directive violated the First Amendment.

“The record allows Mr. Janny to join the jury on his allegation that Agent Gamez interfered with his right to free exercise by allegedly presenting him with a coercive choice to obey the religious rules of the program or return to prison,” McHugh wrote. She added that it was the government’s responsibility to find a program that did not force Janny to choose between confinement and abandoning his atheist beliefs.

Over a dozen faith-based organizations participated in the 10th Circuit on behalf of Janny. These groups – including the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Sikh American Legal Defense Fund and the Hindu American Foundation – claimed that if Janny was prevented from filing a First Amendment complaint, it “would open the door to further harm. for parolees, especially religious minorities. . “

The 10th Circuit decision overturned a trial judge, who sided with Gamez and Carmack last year. U.S. District Court Judge Raymond P. Moore ruled that Gamez was entitled to qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects government employees from liability unless they violate a clearly established right. Moore also determined that Carmack and the deputy director of the rescue mission were not acting in coordination with the state and could not be prosecuted for a First Amendment violation.

However, the 10th Circuit panel was divided over whether Janny’s claims against Carmack, like those against Gamez, could continue to stand trial. McHugh, an Obama administration candidate, and Chief Justice Carlos F. Lucero, a Clinton administration candidate, decided the answer was yes.

Both Gamez and Carmack are said to have pursued a “common unconstitutional goal” of forcing Janny to participate in the program. As Janny described, Carmack allegedly asked Gamez to change Janny’s curfew time so he could attend the evening worship service.

But Judge Joel M. Carson III, a candidate in the Trump administration, disagreed that Carmack was responsible. Carmack, in his opinion, did not have the authority to send Janny to jail, which meant he depended on the parole officer to discipline Janny.

“I do not believe that Mr. Carmack’s willingness to welcome a parolee and his expectation that the parolee will abide by house rules as long as he remains at the Mission has turned him into a state actor. “Carson wrote in a dissenting opinion.

McHugh countered that a jury could find coordination between Carmack and Gamez, resulting in a First Amendment violation. The panel ordered a trial over Janny’s constitutional claims.

The case is Janny v. Gamez et al.


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