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Atheists Demand Religious Equality in Prisons

HOST INTRO: Just under a month ago, the US Army announced that it had approved “Humanist” as a religious option, which could give soldiers who don’t believe in God access to atheist chaplains and services.  Now, a federal inmate in Oregon is demanding the same thing.


When you’re in prison, every aspect of your life is subject to someone else’s approval: Even making a phone call.

AMBI: This call is from Jason. An inmate at: a federal prison.

Jason Michael Holden was locked up for armed robbery ten years ago. Now, he’s at Sheridan Correctional Institute in Oregon. Since he’s been in prison he converted to a kind of atheism called Humanism.

HOLDEN: It’s made me less of a bigot, heh heh.

Not all atheists are alike–

HOLDEN: Since I’ve been an atheist I’ve met Aryan Atheists, people who talk about white superiority through an atheist lens, which is crazy. And I’ve met objectivists, the Ayn Rand clones.

Holden’s brand of atheism is different.

HOLDEN: As humanists we believe in the ability of mankind to transcend their differences and find some common ground, you know, make the world a better place.

Holden says he tries again and again to get approval from prison officials so he and other humanists would be allowed to meet in a group. And every time he was denied. Finally he got a letter that said he had the right to appeal, to Washington. But he received that letter two days after the appeal deadline.

That’s why Holden and a humanist advocacy group ate filing a lawsuit against the Board of Prisons. It alleges that the Warden and Chaplain discriminated against his religious beliefs.

HOLDEN: We simply want the same thing other religious groups are provided.

The Bureau of Prisons couldn’t comment, because of the upcoming lawsuit. But Monica Miller is a lawyer at the American Humanist Association. She’s representing Holden. And she says the prison staff looked for–

MILLER: pretext for discrimination, if you will.

Other federal prisons have allowed humanists to organize group meetings. That means this could be a bureaucratic screwup because of a late letter. But Miller’s not convinced. She says one Chaplain admitted that Humanism could be considered a religion but then he said,

MILLER:  well, it’s not the type of religion that meets in groups, it’s not congregational.

Try telling that to Michael Cluff and the South Jersey Humanists.

CLUFF: Hey! How are you! Good to see you!

Cluff is standing on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, as the suburban dad and his friends get ready for the South Jersey’s annual AIDS Walk. Cluff comes far from a stereotype atheists say they fear: a stereotype of —

CLUFF: — Baby Eating, you know, crazies.

Earth Day craft making with kids one week, conferences about women in secularism the next. <For Cluff, whether or not Humanism is a religion? That’s kind of a philosophical question. But here’s what’s not up for debate: the importance of fellowship, of sharing a sense of wonder about the world.> Cluff says for him, humanism is about coming together to do good without God.

CLUFF: Atheism will have grown when it can get past semantics and become less about what words we use and more about what we do.

AIDS Walk guy: One, Two, Let’s Walk!

That craving for a Godless community is one that’s captured the minds of many influential atheists. It’s spurred new Humanist groups, and even resulted in atheist churches like the Sunday Assembly, which meets in cities around the US and UK.

In other words, atheism isn’t monolithic. So says Nicholas Little, a legal expert at atheist advocacy group Center for Inquiry.

LITTLE:  We can imagine the uproar that would happen from various groups in this country if prisons were told when they came into prison yes, you can worship, but all theists have to worship together.

All theists–that would include Hindus, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.

Grouping everyone who is not a theist in the same category is in and of itself discriminatory.

Little says the case could set a precedent about whether Humanists can organize, not only in federal prisons, but in the state penitentiaries as well. But first, the Bureau will need to respond. Holden’s lawyers say they’re expecting a response to the complaint by June 9th.

Katie Toth, Columbia Radio News.


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