July-August 2020 Church & State Magazine - July/August 2020

Jesus Or Jail? AU Helps Atheist Parolee Who Was Told To Live In A Christian Facility Or Go Back Behind Bars

  Liz Hayes

People caught up in the criminal justice system are especially vulnerable to religious coercion by authority figures who have the power to jail or retaliate against parolees and incarcerated people who don’t share the same religious beliefs.

That’s why Americans United and allies are stepping in to defend the religious freedom rights of a Colorado man who was thrown in jail when he refused to worship a faith that is not his own.

When Mark Janny was paroled in February 2015, he hoped to meet his residency requirements by staying with family friends. But his parole officer, John Gamez from the Colorado Department of Corrections, insisted that Janny live at a Christian-based homeless shelter in Fort Collins. Gam­ez had “an informal arrangement” with the mission’s director, Jim Carmack, to place parolees there.

The mission also operated a Steps to Success program intended to “expose” participants “to the good news of Jesus Christ in a supportive community.” Although only a few mission residents were part of this Steps to Success program, Carmack and employee Tom Kon­­stanty told Janny on his second day that he would be required to participate in the program’s twice-weekly Bible studies, one-on-one religious counseling, daily morning devotions, daily chapel services and attendance at an outside church service every Sunday.

Janny, who is an atheist, told them he wouldn’t participate in religious activities. But Carmack told Janny he couldn’t live at the mission unless he agreed to pray, study the Bible and join other religious activities. Carmack forbade Janny to tell other residents he was an atheist and told him he didn’t “have religious rights here.” Konstanty echo­ed Carmack’s directives, telling Janny, “[Y]ou’re going to do the program, or you’re going to go to jail.”

Janny immediately called his parole officer to object, but during the call and a subsequent meeting, Gam­ez said Janny had to follow all of the rules Carmack established, “including the religious ones.” Gamez also refused to help Janny make arrangements to live elsewhere.

Janny remained at the mission for only a few days before Carmack kicked him out for refusing to attend a church service and not participating in other religious activities. Janny tried to find an alternate residence on his own, but he was unsuccessful and Gamez had him thrown back in jail, where Janny remained for another five months.

Janny knew what happened to him wasn’t right and filed a federal lawsuit against Gamez, Cormack and Konstanty. Unfortunately, Janny didn’t have an attorney and represented himself before the U.S. District Court in Colorado. In a misguided decision, the judge dismissed Janny’s case, Janny v. Gamez, earlier this year.

That’s when Americans United step­ped in alongside the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm DLA Piper LLP to represent Janny as he appeals the decision to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The organizations on June 8 filed an appellate brief on Janny’s behalf, explaining to the court that what happened to Janny was unconstitutional and that the lower court was wrong to dismiss his case.

“Mark Janny’s parole officer team­ed up with shelter administrators to coerce Mark into practicing a faith that is not his own. And when Mark refused to submit to this proselytization, his parole officer retaliated by throwing Mark back in jail,” said Alex J. Luch­enitser, AU’s associate legal director. “Not only did these actions violate Mark’s religious freedom, but they also represent an alarming example of authority figures taking advantage of a vulnerable man.”

This is far from the first time Amer­icans United has assisted people whose religious freedom rights have been violated while they were caught up in the criminal justice system. One of AU’s more notable victories in this area came in the case Americans Uni­ted v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, in which AU successfully ended Iowa’s practice of funneling millions of taxpayer dollars to an evangelical Christian-based prison ministry. Until then, incarcerated people were given special treatment if they participated in the InnerChange religious program, which also denigrated other faiths.

 “Like the rights of all Americans, the rights of prisoners should never depend on whether they believe in a divine authority,” Luchenitser said in a press statement.                          

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The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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