Multifaith Coalition Files Brief Supporting Atheist Parolee Forced to Attend Religious Services

WASHINGTON, DC — Muslim Advocates, joined by 15 other faith-based organizations from diverse religious backgrounds, filed a brief on Monday, in support of an atheist who was required to live in a Christian halfway house as a condition of his parole. After he refused to attend religious services, he was kicked out of the halfway house and arrested for violating his parole—leading him to file a lawsuit, Janny v. Gamez. Unfortunately, a district court ruled against him, claiming no violations of his religious rights occurred because he was merely required to attend the services, not participate in them. The plaintiff is represented on appeal by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the ACLU of Colorado, and the law firm DLA Piper.

Muslim Advocates’ brief argues that the district court’s ruling misapplied religious freedom law. By claiming that merely attending a religious service was not a religious event, the court ignored the fact that attending religious services is a deeply meaningful religious act for a number of different faith traditions. Further, the Constitution and U.S. law protect not only against forced participation in religious exercise, but also against being forced to listen to religious proselytization. The brief also emphasizes that the district court’s misapplication of the law would be especially harmful to religious minorities, because they are more likely to end up at a halfway house that does not share their faith.

“Parole officers cannot force anyone to attend religious services in order to stay out of prison,” says Matthew Callahan, staff attorney at Muslim Advocates. “The laws of the United States require that the government respect an individual’s personal religious beliefs. The Tenth Circuit must act to overturn the district court’s dangerous interpretation of the law and ensure that no one else is sent behind bars merely for following the dictates of their faith.”

Along with Muslim Advocates, the brief was signed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Disciples of Christ, the Global Justice Institute, the Hindu American Foundation, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, Men of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Churches, Reconstructing Judaism, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Sikh American Legal Defense Fund, Union of Reform Judaism, Unitarian Universalist Association, Women of Reform Judaism, and Wyoming Interfaith Network.

Muslim Advocates is a national civil rights organization working in the courts, in the halls of power and in communities to halt bigotry in its tracks. We ensure that American Muslims have a seat at the table with expert representation so that all Americans may live free from hate and discrimination.