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American Atheists Wins in West Virginia Religious Coercion Lawsuit

Charleston, WV — American Atheists announced today a resounding victory in its federal lawsuit, in partnership with Mountain State Justice, against the leadership of the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (WVDCR) in April 2023 on behalf of Andrew Miller, an atheist and Secular Humanist who was forced to engage in religious activities as a condition of parole.

“We’ve said it before, but no one should be forced to sacrifice their moral or religious beliefs in order to be released from incarceration,” said Lesley Nash, an attorney with Mountain State Justice, who served as local counsel in this case. “We’re pleased the Court acted to protect Andrew’s rights when WVDCR would not.”

Mr. Miller was officially released under West Virginia’s Non-Violent Offender Parole Program in October. In addition, the WVDCR removed its requirement that participants attend religious 12-step meetings and removed religious components from its federally funded Residential Substance Abuse Treatment Program (RSAT) handbook. The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation also agreed to pay $80,000 in legal fees to Mountain State Justice and American Atheists.

“This is, of course, a tremendous victory for Andrew, who is finally free, but also a complete vindication of his and other nonreligious Americans’ rights under the law,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists. “And yet, if the WVDCR had acted properly, Andrew may well have been released much sooner. Rather than cave to West Virginia’s unconstitutional religious coercion, he took a principled stand and fought to defend his First Amendment rights.”

The lawsuit alleged, and the state did not dispute, that Mr. Miller’s conscientious refusal to complete the pervasively religious RSAT program was a significant contributing factor in the West Virginia Parole Board Panel’s decision to deny him parole on three occasions. In doing so, the WVDCR violated his constitutional rights as well as rights guaranteed by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

In July of this year, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph R. Goodwin issued a sweeping 60-page decision, denying dismissing West Virginia’s motion to dismiss the case, finding Mr. Miller’s claims to be “likely–if not inevitable” to succeed. The judge also issued a preliminary injunction requiring WVDCR officials to remove completion of the state’s RSAT Program from Mr. Miller’s parole eligibility requirements.

Judge Goodwin wrote that the injunction “would do no more than require the defendants to fulfill their existing constitutional obligations” and highlighted the “undeniably religious nature of the program.” It included the mandatory recitation of Christian prayers during meetings and overtly religious content in the course material, which was primarily developed by Texas Christian University.

Courts around the country have repeatedly reached the conclusion that 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous are religious and cannot be forced on people by the government. The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous includes a chapter that tells “atheists and agnostics they are ‘doomed to an alcohol death’ unless they ‘seek Him.’” The chapter goes on to deride the nonreligious as “handicapped by obstinacy, sensitiveness, and unreasoning prejudice.”

Following his release, Mr. Miller said, “The harm inflicted by these programs is very real. I was, for a period of time, essentially incarcerated simply because I am not a Christian. In order to secure my freedom, West Virginia forced me, an atheist, to act as an anti-atheist, to pray to a God I don’t believe in, and to preach a gospel that condemns me. I tried time and again to be placed in a more suitable treatment program. Nobody should have to file a lawsuit to force the government to fulfill its constitutional obligation to protect the religious freedom of everyone, including atheists.”

While incarcerated, Mr. Miller made repeated requests for accommodation, seeking treatment for his addiction in the form of therapy, medication, or participation in secular substance abuse programs, such as SMART Recovery or LifeRing. West Virginia officials denied his requests at every turn, insisting that the program was “spiritual,” not “religious.” Judge Goodwin rejected this argument, stating that “by attempting to draw a distinction between spirituality and religion, Defendants effectively concede that RSAT imposes specific spiritual beliefs on its participants” and violates the First Amendment rights of atheists.

“This lawsuit is an important victory for religious freedom and equality in the United States,” said Nick Fish, President of American Atheists. “Atheists, humanists, and nonreligious and non-Christian people have inalienable rights, which we must guard against government overreach and infringement. Unfortunately, West Virginia is just one of many states that is forcing Christianity and other religious indoctrination on the people incarcerated in their facilities as a condition of parole.”

American Atheists continues to advocate for legislation that would require criminal justice systems to inform criminal defendants and those who are incarcerated of their right to access a secular recovery option. SMART Recovery and LifeRing have long provided secular, evidence-based alternatives to religious programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. One such bill passed the New York legislature, but remains unsigned on Governor Hochul’s desk. In December of 2022, Governor Hochul vetoed a similar bill.