West Virginia atheist inmate sues over Christian programming

By Leah Willingham, The Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — An atheist and secular humanist is suing multiple officials in charge of the agency that runs West Virginia’s jails and prisons, accusing the state of violating his constitutional rights by requiring Christian-affiliated programming as a condition of release.

Andrew Miller, who is currently incarcerated at Saint Marys Correctional Center and Jail, filed a lawsuit in a federal district court Tuesday alleging the state is forcing Christianity on incarcerated people and has failed to accommodate repeated requests to honor his lack of belief in God.

The suit claims Miller encountered “religious coercion” in June 2021 when he entered the Pleasants County correctional facility. Miller is serving a one- to 10-year, nondeterminative sentence for breaking and entering.

Miller alleges the federally-funded substance abuse treatment program he is participating in — which is a requirement for his parole consideration — is “infused with Christian practices,” including Christian reading materials and mandated Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, where the Serenity and Lord’s Prayer are recited.

Miller’s attorneys with the American Atheists are requesting the court require the state to immediately make secular alternatives for all religious elements in the program. Attorneys also want the program removed as a requirement of Miller’s reentry plan.

Several West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials, including Commissioner William K. Marshall, are named in the suit. A corrections spokesperson said Wednesday the division’s policy is not to comment on pending litigation.

American Atheists is an organization that fights for atheists’ civil liberties and advocates the separation of church and state in the U.S. The nonprofit legal services organization Mountain State Justice will serve as local counsel in Miller’s case.

Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, called the case an important lawsuit for “religious freedom and equality,” adding that a non-Christian’s rights “do not get set aside simply because a person is incarcerated.”

“If anything, these circumstances are when we must most zealously guard against government infringement on our right to live by our consciences,” Fish said.

Multiple courts have determined that step-based programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are religious-based programs because they are predicated on the existence of a higher power or a God. Steps ask participants to turn their “lives over to the care of God” and encourage prayer to improve “conscious contact with God.”

In the “Big Book,” the foundational document of these programs, “Chapter 4: We Agnostics” tells atheists and agnostics that they are “doomed to alcoholic death” unless they “seek Him.” The chapter characterizes non-believers as “handicapped by obstinacy, sensitiveness, and unreasoning prejudice.”

American Atheists has supported legislation to require that the criminal justice system inform defendants of their right to a secular recovery option, such as SMART Recovery or LifeRing. One such bill passed in New York, but it was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul in December 2022.

Leah Willingham, The Associated Press

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