Editorials, Opinion

Even inmates have rights under the First Amendment

Last week, Charleston-based U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Goodwin rightfully ruled in favor of an atheist inmate who said he had been subjected to faith-based programs in violation of his First Amendment rights.

We’re surprised someone hadn’t sued sooner.

Andrew Miller filed a lawsuit against Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials in April 2023.  Miller says when he became incarcerated in 2021, he was enrolled in the federally funded Residential Substance Use Treatment (RSAT) program, because he had been receiving secular recovery services prior to his incarceration. (The crime for which he is serving time is not substance-related.) According to his lawsuit, the RSAT program was “infused with Christianity,” combining religious literature with otherwise secular elements. 

Over the next couple years, Miller made multiple requests for secular alternatives. When those were denied, he reluctantly participated in RSAT courses, progressing to Phase 3. He stopped when his move to a different facility would have made him start over. As a requirement of his Individual Reentry Program Plan, Mill had to complete the RSAT program — which also requires attending AA and/or NA meetings. Not doing so resulted in multiple denied paroles.

Multiple courts nationwide have recognized Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and similar 12-step programs as religion-based.  The Lord’s Prayer and the Serenity Prayer are recited at each meeting; the traditional 12 steps of recovery refer repeatedly to relying on God.

Judge Goodwin was forceful but restrained in his ruling: The state’s “unmitigated actions force Mr. Miller to choose between two distinct but equally irreparable injuries: submit to government coercion and engage in religious exercise at odds with his own beliefs,” or “remain incarcerated until at least April 2025.” As his final judgment, Goodwin decided to have the RSAT removed from Miller’s IRPP so it would no longer be a condition of his parole.

Goodwin did, however, hint at his opinions on some of the larger, overarching questions, such as whether any prisoner should be subject to the religious aspects of the RSAT program or whether such programs should be federally funded.

In an alternative judgment that would have given Miller credit for the parts of the program he had already completed and exempted him from the religious aspects of the RSAT as he finished, Goodwin also included a condition that would have mandated “policies preventing participants in the RSAT program from being subject to religious coercion through mandatory participation in religious elements and activities.” Ultimately, though, he did not rule that the Department of Corrections must provide secular alternatives like SMART Recovery or LifeRing.

Goodwin also made sure to point out that the Department of Corrections may be violating Department of Justice funding rules by forcing inmates to participate in the religious aspects of the RSAT program; the DOJ requires any 12-step programs like AA/NA to be funded separately from the rest of RSAT. His pointed comment reiterates that federal funds should not be used for the promotion of any religion.

While Goodwin could have made precedent-setting ruling, we respect that he reaffirmed Miller’s First Amendment rights and issued a judgment that gives Miller the best opportunity for a timely parole.