Charleston, WV — In a sweeping 60-page decision issued yesterday, a federal judge ruled in favor of Andrew Miller, an atheist and Secular Humanist, who has been forced to participate in religious substance abuse treatment activities as a condition for his parole.
U.S. District Court Judge Joseph R. Goodwin issued a preliminary injunction requiring officials with the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (WVDCR) to remove completion of the state’s Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) Program from Mr. Miller’s parole eligibility requirements.
“This is a complete vindication of Andrew’s rights under the law,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists. “As Judge Goodwin said in his ruling, if Andrew had not stood up for his rights and instead allowed West Virginia to force this religious programming on him, it’s entirely possible he would already have been released. That’s not a choice anyone should have to make.”
Miller has been interviewed three times by the West Virginia Parole Board Panel and was denied parole each time. The lawsuit alleges, and the state does not dispute, that his failure to complete the pervasively religious RSAT program contributed significantly to the Board’s decision to deny him parole.
“Without Andrew’s willingness to take on this fight, West Virginia would continue to unconstitutionally impose religion on people in its corrections system,” added Blackwell.
In the opinion granting the preliminary injunction, Judge Goodwin denied West Virginia’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, finding that all of Andrew’s claims were “likely—if not inevitable” to succeed on the merits. Goodwin highlighted the “undeniably religious nature of the program,” including pervasive religious content in the course material, mandatory prayers during meetings, and a chapter that “tells atheists and agnostics they are ‘doomed to an alcoholic death’ unless they ‘seek Him.’”
In directing that WVDCR remove requirements that Andrew complete the RSAT program in order to be eligible for parole, Judge Goodwin found that the “injunction would do no more than require the defendants to fulfill their existing constitutional obligations.”
“As we said when we filed this case, no one should be forced to set aside their moral or religious creed as a precondition of their parole,” said Lesley Nash, an attorney with Mountain State Justice, who is serving as local counsel in this case. “We’re pleased that the Court acted to protect Andrew’s rights when WVDCR has not.”
American Atheists is promoting state-level legislation that would require criminal justice systems to inform defendants and those who are incarcerated of their right to access a secular recovery option as an alternative to religious programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or West Virginia’s RSAT. One bill has passed in New York and is on its way to Governor Hochul’s desk, and another has been introduced in Michigan.
“It’s clear that religious coercion is an all-too-common issue in our nation’s criminal justice system,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “This is a step in the right direction, but it’s long overdue that we push for big, systemic changes to finally fix this. We shouldn’t have to file lawsuit after lawsuit to force the government to do the right thing: protecting the religious freedom of everyone, atheists included.”
American Atheists and Mountain State Justice filed this case on April 3, 2023 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia. The docket number is 2:23-cv-0030. Judge Goodwin’s full ruling is available here.