Nontheist, Atheist, Humanist

Colorado Parolee Tells Federal Appeals Court That He Shouldn’t Have Been Jailed For Refusing To Attend Worship Services

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Today, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and DLA Piper LLP (US) filed an appellate brief with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of their client, Mark Janny, who was jailed after he refused to take part in worship services, Bible studies and religious counseling mandated by his parole officer. Although Janny represented himself at the district court level, Americans United, the ACLU and DLA Piper stepped in to represent him on appeal. The appeal argues that a federal district court wrongly dismissed Janny’s case, which asserted violations of his First Amendment rights.

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 a return to jail if he did not continue living at the Mission and participating in the required religious activities. When Janny ultimately declined to attend worship services, Gamez revoked his parole, and Janny was jailed for another five months.

Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director at Americans United: “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. 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.”

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief: “Throwing someone behind bars for refusing to attend church services is blatantly unconstitutional. Government officials can’t abuse their positions of power to convert  parolees, or anyone else, to their preferred faith.” 

The brief in Janny v. Gamez is available here.

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the nonprofit educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom. Learn more at www.au.org.

For nearly 100 years, the ACLU has worked in courts, legislatures, and communities to protect the constitutional rights of all people. With a nationwide network of offices and millions of members and supporters, we take up the toughest civil liberties fights. Beyond one person, party, or side — we the people dare to create a more perfect union. Learn more at aclu.org.

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

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