Did Non-Secular Substance Abuse Program Violate Atheist's Rights?

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on April 03, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Randall Jackson was incarcerated in Missouri, at the Western Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center ("WRDCC"). To be eligible for early release on parole, he had to complete the Offenders Under Treatment Program ("OUTP"), which dealt with substance abuse. Jackson is an atheist, the program is non-secular, and you can probably see where this is headed.


According to his complaint, Jackson alleged that the OUTP "had required meetings [and] invoked religious tenets by using the serenity prayer and religious meditations." When he objected and notified the staff, they advised him "to assume a role or attitude even if you don't like it" and to interpret God "as an acronym for 'good orderly direction.'"

His request to be transferred to a secular treatment program was denied. Jackson felt he was being coerced to alter and change his thinking and behavior, and as a result, he dropped out of the OUTP. A parole board document in his file read: "Because you have not completed a Board stipulated treatment program, the Board is denying your credit release date. Your previously scheduled release date will remain in effect."

Jackson's Claims

Jackson sued pro se, alleging state officials violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983; he was represented by counsel on appeal. The district judge dismissed his complaint finding his claims failed because, among other reasons, "withdrawing voluntarily from a program does not create a constitutional right to an early release."

Divided Panel of the 8th Circuit

Two of the three judges on the Eighth Circuit panel disagreed, and found that Jackson had pleaded enough facts to show that the state's actions may have amounted to coercion, violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Judge Smith dissented because treatment in the OUTP was not mandatory, and Jackson was not punished for not completing the OUTP.

This is definitely an interesting case dealing with the intersection of prisoners' rights and the Establishment Clause. The Eighth Circuit has left it for the trial court to determine issues of fact that may still affect the outcome of the litigation.

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