Federal Court Sides with Atheist Parolee Forced to Attend Religious Services

Muslim Advocates Led Diverse, Faith-Based Coalition Supporting the Case 

WASHINGTON, DC — On Friday, a federal court ruled that the government cannot require an atheist parolee to attend religious services. Last year, Muslim Advocates led a diverse coalition of faith-based organizations to file an amicus brief supporting the parolee’s legal challenge and asking the court for this exact result.

The parolee, Mark Janny, was a Colorado state prisoner who completed his sentence. As part of the conditions of his parole, he had to live in a government-approved facility. Without informing him about the nature of the halfway house selected for him, Janny was placed at a Christian facility that required him to attend worship services and religious education sessions. When Janny refused because he was not a Christian, he was kicked out of the facility and rearrested for violating the terms of his parole. Mr. Janny sued but the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants. In an opinion filed last Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit rejected the lower court’s ruling and sided with Janny. Mr. Janny was represented on his appeal by the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and DLA Piper LLP.

Muslim Advocates’ amicus brief argued that the district court’s decision ignored one of the clearest mandates of this country’s religious liberty laws: that the government cannot force anyone, including prisoners and parolees, to worship against their will. The Tenth Circuit agreed, reversing the case and remanding it to the district court to reinstate Mr. Janny’s claims.

Along with Muslim Advocates, the amicus 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.

“It’s outrageous and plainly unconstitutional for our government to force someone to attend religious services in order to stay out of prison. No one is free to exercise their religion if the government can tell them how to worship,” said Muslim Advocates Senior Staff Attorney Matt Callahan. “The Tenth Circuit’s opinion reaffirms that the Constitution protects the rights of all people to act in accordance with their beliefs.”

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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.