October 2005 Church & State | AU Bulletin

Prison officials in Wisconsin violated the separation of church and state when they refused to allow an atheist to form a study group, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Kaufman v. McCaughtry that officials at the Waupun Correctional Institute did not have a legitimate reason for denying James Kaufman’s request to form an inmate group “interested in humanism, atheism, and free speaking.” In a document requesting the formation of the group, Kaufman said the group would aspire to “stimulate and promote Freedom of Thought and inquiry concerning religious beliefs, creeds, dogmas, tenets, rituals and practices….”

Prison officials denied Kaufman’s request arguing that it was not motivated by “religious” beliefs.

Judge Diane P. Wood, writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, first noted that federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have “adopted a broad definition of ‘religion’ that includes non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as theistic ones.”

Wisconsin prison officials were in error, she said, when they judged Kaufman’s beliefs and then denied his request to form an inmate group.

“Atheism is, among other things, a school of thought that takes a position on religion, the existence and importance of a supreme being, and a code of ethics,” Wood wrote.