Americans United and its allies last month won an important legal victory making it clear that the First Amendment prohibits government officials and those who assume governmental duties from punishing people on parole, on probation and in prison for refusing to take part in religious worship and activities.

The case, Janny v. Gamez, involves Mark Janny of Colorado, a man on parole whose First Amendment religious freedom rights were violated when he was sent back to jail after he refused to take part in worship services, Bible studies and religious counseling mandated by his parole officer. A federal district court had ruled against Janny, dismissing his case, but the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 6 that every person has “the basic right to be free from state-sponsored religious coercion.”

The ruling means that Janny’s case may now proceed to trial.

When Janny was on parole in February 2015, Colorado Department of Corrections Parole Officer John Gamez required him to live at the Denver Rescue Mission, a Christian homeless shelter that offers religious programming for parolees and other residents. Gamez had an arrangement with the Mission’s director to place parolees there, with the understanding that they would take part in compulsory religious worship and practice.

Janny, an atheist, objected to the mandatory worship services, Bible studies and religious counseling, and he asked to be excused from religious programming or to be permitted to live elsewhere. Gamez and the Mission’s staff refused Janny’s request, threatening him with reimprisonment if he did not continue living at the Mission and did not agree to participate in the required religious activities. He was also subjected to pressure to cease being an atheist.

When Janny ultimately declined to attend worship services, Gamez revoked his parole, and Janny was jailed for another five months. Janny filed a federal lawsuit, asserting violations of his First Amendment rights; he represented himself at the district court level. After the district court wrongly dismissed his case, Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm DLA Piper stepped in to represent him on appeal. (See “Jesus Or Jail?” July-August 2020 Church & State.)

“This is a victory for Mark and for religious freedom,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director at Americans United. “Our country’s fundamental principle of church-state separation guarantees that everyone has the right to believe, or not, as they choose. That means that our government must never force anyone to practice a faith that is not their own, and of course must never jail anyone for refusing to submit to religious proselytization.”

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, added, “The government presented Mr. Janny with a blatantly unconstitutional choice: Go to church, or go to jail. As the court’s decision makes clear, the First Amendment flatly prohibits such religious coercion, and state officials should know better.”

            Janny’s appeal was litigated by Charles Wayne of DLA Piper, Luchenitser and Richard B. Katskee of Americans United, and Mach and Heather L. Weaver of the ACLU.

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