January 2024 Church & State Magazine - January 2024

Wrongly imprisoned Colo. man can pursue damages, court rules

 

A federal court ruled last month that a Colorado man whose parole officer sent him to jail for refusing to take part in religious worship and activities can proceed to trial on his claims for certain kinds of damages, including punitive damages, against the parole officer.

Hands of Prisoner behind bars in Prison Cell.

Victory! Court rules in favor of parolee in AU case (Getty Images)

The case, Janny v. Gamez, involves Mark Janny of Colorado, an atheist whose First Amendment religious freedom rights were violated when he was sent back to confinement after he refused to take part in worship services, Bible studies and religious counseling mandated by his parole officer. 

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 with required 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, who objected to the mandatory religious activity, 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.

After Janny declined to attend worship services, Gamez had him arrested and initiated parole revocation proceedings. Janny was incarcerated for another five months.

The U.S. District Court for the Federal District of Colorado ruled that Janny is eligible to recover damages for the violations of his religious freedom, including punitive damages, compensatory damages for loss of liberty and economic damages for loss of wages for part of the period of his confinement, and nominal damages. The case is scheduled to go to trial in July.

Janny is represented by Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of DLA Piper LLP.

“This is a victory for Mark Janny and for religious freedom,” said Rachel Laser, CEO and president of Americans United. “Our country’s fundamental principle of church-state separation guarantees that everyone has the right to believe as they choose, so long as they don’t harm others. 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.”

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