Feb 27, 2018

Two organizations that promote separation of church and state today filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a federal appeals court over discriminatory treatment of a Humanist inmate in a Nevada prison.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed the brief on behalf of Benjamin Espinosa, an inmate at Lovelock Correctional Center. Espinosa has been denied the right to organize a Humanist group in prison even though dozens of theistic “faith groups” meet. This case, Espinosa v. Dzurenda, is being litigated by the American Humanist Association. It is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Like the rights of all Americans, the rights of prisoners should never depend on whether they believe in a divine authority,” said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. “Prisons should give Humanist inmates the same rights that other inmates have to observe and study their beliefs.”

A lower court ruled in favor of the Nevada Department of Corrections, holding that Humanism, a non-theistic belief system that rejects the existence of deities, doesn’t deserve the same rights as theistic groups.

The Americans United-FFRF brief argues that Humanism is entitled to the same protections as theistic beliefs.

“In the prison context, atheism, agnosticism, Humanism, Ethical Culture, and Unitarian Universalism must receive the same constitutional protections as theistic belief systems,” the brief contends. “In a case with facts remarkably similar to those of the one at bar, the Seventh Circuit held that a state prison violated the Establishment Clause by denying an atheist inmate the right to form an atheist study group.”

Observed FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, “It’s distressing to observe such blatant discrimination against freethinking inmates. The appellate court needs to restore their freedom of conscience.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s primary purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on the rights and views of atheists, agnostics, and other non-theists, including Humanists. FFRF attorneys Sam Grover and Colin McNamara were the primary drafters of the amicus brief, with filing assistance from Andrew Seidel.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom. Luchenitser helped draft the brief.