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Eighth Circuit: Atheist Prisoner States Coerced Religious-Based Treatment Claim

Eighth Circuit: Atheist Prisoner States Coerced Religious-Based Treatment Claim

by Mark Wilson

On March 28, 2014, the EighthCircuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s sua sponte dismissal of a prisoner’s coerced religious-based treatment claim.

Missouri prisoner Randall Jackson is an atheist who was required to attend the Offenders Under Treatment Program (OUTP), a substance abuse program, at the Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center. He understood that he would not be given early parole consideration unless he completed the program.

According to Jackson, OUTP “had required meetings [and] invoked religious tenets by using the serenity prayer and religious meditations.” When he objected to the prayer, staff told him “to ‘act as if,’ a term used in the program, meaning to ‘assume a role or attitude even if you don’t feel like it’ and further defined as ‘[a] tool used to assist one in “trying on” new patterns of thought and behavior.’” They also told him to “use God as an acronym for ‘good orderly direction.’”

Jackson felt “coerced by and through an atmosphere designed and intended to change or alter [his] thinking and behavior.” Conformity was induced “by adding pressure and leverage through the hope and desire of achieving a ‘Placement on Parole,’” he alleged.

When prison officials denied Jackson’s grievance seeking transfer to a secular treatment program, he left OUTP. He was then denied early parole consideration for failing to complete the program.

Jackson filed suit in federal court, alleging that prison officials had violated his First Amendment rights by compelling him to participate in a religious-based treatment program. The district court dismissed with prejudice on initial screening, concluding that Jackson’s “voluntary withdrawal” from OUTP was fatal to his claim. The court also held that Jackson failed to allege the personal involvement of the defendants.

The Eighth Circuit reversed, finding first that dismissal due to Jackson’s withdrawal from the program was premature. The appellate court held that “whether Jackson’s withdrawal ... was indeed voluntary ... or was the result of state-sponsored coercion is yet to be determined.” This was because “the Hobson’s choice ... to be imprisoned or to renounce his own religious beliefs ... offends the core of Establishment Clause jurisprudence.”

The Court of Appeals then applied the three-step inquiry adopted in Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472 (7th Cir. 1996), and followed in Inouye v. Kemna, 504 F.3d 705 (9th Cir. 2007), to conclude that Jackson stated an adequate governmental coercion claim.

The Eighth Circuit also concluded that Jackson had adequately alleged the personal involvement of the DOC Director and another defendant, and therefore held that the district court had “erred in dismissing with prejudice Jackson’s claims.” One judge issued a dissenting opinion. Jackson obtained counsel following remand, who moved to certify the case as a class action on November 7, 2014. This case remains pending. See: Jackson v. Nixon, 747 F.3d 537 (8th Cir. 2014).

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Related legal case

Inouye v. Kemna