An appeals court panel in Colorado has ruled that an atheist parolee cannot be penalized for not attending religious programs.
Last Friday, the U.S. Court for the 10th Circuit reversed a lower court ruling, where a judge decided that the conditions of attending religious events or else face additional jail time, was acceptable.
In this case, Mark Janny had been released from prison in 2015 on parole. The conditions of Janny's release required him to live at the Rescue Mission in Fort Collins, a Christian ministry, and obey the house rules. He also enrolled in a transitional program that required prayer and church attendance. However, Janny identified as an atheist and presented both of these instances as forcing him to practice a different religious faith than his own.
When Janny attempted to propose an alternative residence, Janny's parole officer immediately shot it down out of concerns for the home having connections to drug dealers. Janny was later expelled from the Rescue Mission after skipping several worship services, which lead to him being arrested and having his parole revoked.
The 10th Circuit ruled that the earlier court decision, which had favored both Janny's parole officer and the Rescue Mission director, in the ruling. Instead, the court sent the case back to the lower courts. "Because Officer Gamez rejected Mr. Janny's proposed residence while directing him to stay at the Mission, Mr. Janny was given a 'Hobson's choice' — to violate his religious beliefs by following the Program's rules or to return to jail," wrote Judge Carolyn McHugh. "It was the state's responsibility, not Mr. Janny's, to locate an alternative residence that did not involve that coercive choice."
McHugh's fellow judges agreed on this decision. However, Judge Joel Carson III argued that the Rescue Mission Director should be immune from prosecution in this case. "Mr. Carmack, as the director of a religious nonprofit, required Mr. Janny to comply with the nonprofit's programming, including its religious rules, so long as Mr. Janny remained under the nonprofit's roof. When Mr. Janny failed to do so, Mr. Carmack asked him to leave as he would any other person," writes Carson. "As I see it, the majority makes it so religious nonprofits now have two options (1) they can stop requiring religious programming — perhaps defeating their core missions; or (2) they can stop accepting parolees — leaving more individuals who struggle to find a safe place to live, in jail."
The decision was considered a victory by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who represented Janny in the appeal. "This is a victory for Mark and for religious freedom," writes Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans United associate vice president and associate legal director. "… 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."