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Humanists Demand Equal Treatment for Nevada Prisoners before Ninth Circuit

August 6, 2019

For Immediate Release

 

Contact:
Sarah Henry, (202) 238-9088 ext. 105, shenry@americanhumanist.org

 

(Washington D.C., August 6, 2019) – American Humanist Association (AHA) Legal Director and Senior Counsel, Monica Miller, just concluded oral arguments before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Espinosa et al. v. James Dzurenda, et al. The lawsuit, filed in October 2016, challenges the Nevada Department of Corrections’ refusal to provide weekly group study meetings for humanists while providing such meetings for Scientologists, Pagans, Wiccans, and Muslims, among others. The AHA’s briefing at the Ninth Circuit faulted the district court for upholding the state’s discrimination against humanists simply because humanists reject a belief in a “supernatural power accepted as the creator and governor of the universe.”

 

“In today’s argument, I reiterated that a ‘religion’ for First Amendment purposes cannot be conditioned upon a belief in a supernatural creator based on settled Supreme Court precedent. The Supreme Court already determined that ‘secular humanism’ is a ‘religion’ for constitutional purposes even though humanism need not be a ‘religion’ at all for entitlement to group meetings,” said Miller. “The District Court brazenly defied such binding precedent when it held that Espinosa was required to plead that his ‘belief system’ includes a supernatural creator.”

 

The Nevada Department of Corrections (DOC) recognizes 27 “Faith Groups” including Scientology and Wicca, and provides weekly meetings for such groups with as few as two members.  The complaint states that there were at least ten humanists in plaintiff Benjamin Espinsoa’s facility at the time of filing. “The cases make clear that weekly meetings are no less justified for humanists and atheists than they are for the Faith Groups currently accommodated within the Department of Corrections,” Miller stressed.

 

Following the AHA’s victory against the Federal Bureau of Prisons in June of 2014, Mr. Espinosa filed a request for the Nevada DOC to approve secular humanism as a Faith Group and provide humanists with weekly study groups and storage space for those meetings. The application is still pending, yet the DOC, a month before oral argument, added secular humanism to its Overview Chart and moved to dismiss the case on account of mootness. Today’s arguments centered largely on the Motion to Dismiss.

 

According to Miller, the Nevada DOC’s latest maneuver “compounds the disparate treatment of humanists, as secular humanism is the only official Faith Group in the chart without approval for group meetings, holidays, or anything for that matter.”

 

Miller argued before Reagan-appointed Diarmuid O’Scannlain, H.W. Bush-appointed Eugene Edward Siler, Jr. (from the Sixth Circuit), and Obama-appointed Jacqueline Nguyen. A decision is expected before the end of the year. Video and audio of today’s arguments will be posted individually on the Ninth Circuit website tomorrow.

 

Read AHA’s opening brief here and reply brief here.

 

Read AHA’s opposition to the Nevada DOC’s motion to dismiss here.

 

Watch Miller’s Ninth Circuit argument here, beginning at 1:13:00.

 

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The American Humanist Association (AHA) works to protect the rights of humanists, atheists, and other nontheistic Americans. The AHA advances the ethical and life-affirming worldview of humanism, which—without beliefs in gods or other supernatural forces—encourages individuals to live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

 

Special thanks to the Louis J. Appignani Foundation and the Herb Block Foundation for their support of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

 

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