While Benjamin Espinosa is imprisoned in Nevada’s Lovelock Correctional Center, he would like to form a Humanist study group so that he and like-minded prisoners can gather to discuss their beliefs. The Nevada Department of Corrections allows adherents of more than two dozen theistic faith groups to gather and discuss their worldview – but denies this opportunity to Humanists.
For more than three years, prison officials have refused Espinosa’s request, discriminating against him and other Humanists. Religious freedom is about fairness. It is unfair to treat people differently because of their beliefs. The Constitution applies everywhere and to everyone; people don’t lose their right to religious freedom when they’re behind prison walls.
That’s why Americans United joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation this week in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Espinosa. We urge the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to ensure that Nevada prisons treat Espinosa (and other Humanists and nontheists) with the same dignity and equality granted to theists.
“Like the rights of all Americans, the rights of prisoners should never depend on whether they believe in a divine authority,” said AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. “Prisons should give Humanist inmates the same rights that other inmates have to observe and study their beliefs.”
Religious freedom guarantees everyone, including imprisoned people, the right to believe, or not, according to their own conscience. To deny Humanists or any group of people rights given to others solely on the basis of faith is discrimination, plain and simple.
Our brief explains that the U.S. Supreme Court and a multitude of other federal courts have consistently determined that Humanism, atheism and other nontheistic belief systems are covered by the Constitution’s religious freedom protections. Several federal agencies, including the Bureau of Prisons, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the IRS, plus several state corrections bureaus have formally recognized Humanism as a belief system and given its adherents the same rights as followers of theistic religions.
Like theistic faiths, Humanism addresses fundamental questions, such as the existence of a god and the nature of morality; it is a comprehensive belief system; and it has the trappings of an organized faith, including chaplains and formal organizations such as the American Humanist Association, which filed the case on Espinosa’s behalf.
“To conclude that nontheists, including nontheistic Humanists, do not enjoy the same rights of conscience as theistic citizens would be to misinterpret and rewrite the very meaning of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses” of the Constitution, our brief explains. “Humanists and other nontheists are entitled to the same constitutional protections as their theistic counterparts. … Humanists’ lack of belief in a deity is no bar to full constitutional protection. … Humanism is neither new nor idiosyncratic but rather is a belief system shared by people around the world, including in cellblocks across the country.”
We urged the 9th Circuit to reverse the lower court’s ruling that Nevada’s Department of Corrections doesn’t have to recognize the rights of Humanists. Religious freedom guarantees everyone, including imprisoned people, the right to believe, or not, according to their own conscience. To deny Humanists or any group of people rights given to others solely on the basis of faith is discrimination, plain and simple.