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BOP Recognizes Humanist Religion after Prisoner Files Suit

The American Humanist Association, affiliated with over 1,000 congregations in the United States, has been a recognized religion for decades – but it took a civil rights complaint by a federal prisoner at FCI Sheridan in Oregon to finally get the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to recognize it as such.

Jason Michael Holden, incarcerated at Sheridan, had tried and failed to have Humanism recognized by the chaplain or case manager at the facility as a religion deserving of the privileges accorded other religions by the BOP, so he was left with no alternative but to file suit in federal court. After months of litigation, the parties entered into a settlement that recognizes Humanism as a religious group within BOP facilities.

In a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action brought under the First and Fifth Amendments, and Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), Holden argued that “The Defendants’ policy and practice of discriminating against non-theistic inmates and Humanist inmates in particular, because of their religious beliefs, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as well as the Equal Protection mandate of the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

The parties agreed as part of the settlement that “all requests for religious accommodations are subject to, and governed by, federal regulations 28 C.F.R. § 548.10-548.20 and BOP Program Statement 5360.09, Religious Beliefs and Practice ... including, but not limited to, requests for: time and space for religious activities, pastoral or celebrant visits, community involvement, observance of holy days and access to religious literature and study materials.” The BOP’s recognition of a religion is significant because in a correctional setting, members of a non-recognized religion are unable to procure meeting space, outside volunteers to assist in the worship process or recognition of their religious holidays, effectively preventing them from practicing their faith.

Under the terms of the July 2015 settlement agreement, “The BOP shall add a section on ‘Humanism’ to the BOP’s Manual on Inmate Beliefs and Practices.... The BOP shall create a new ‘Humanist’ religious umbrella group in SENTRY.... [and] The BOP shall add Humanism to the Religious Services Annual Report.” Federal prison officials also agreed to pay $98,000 in attorney fees and costs to Holden’s attorneys, including Monica Miller with the American Humanist Association in Washington, D.C. and Benjamin Haile with the Portland Law Collective in Portland, Oregon.

Compliance with the settlement terms will be monitored by a U.S. Magistrate Judge until May 1, 2017. See: Holden v. Bureau of Prisons, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 3:14-cv-00565-HZ. 

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Related legal case

Holden v. Bureau of Prisons