Go to church or go to jail. That’s the unfathomable choice that a parole officer gave our client, Mark Janny, after he was released from a Colorado prison in 2014. When Mr. Janny, an atheist, refused to attend worship services at the Christian mission where his parole officer had ordered him to live, the officer revoked his parole and sent him back to jail for another five months. Last week, a federal appeals court rebuked the parole officer and affirmed one of our most fundamental and enduring constitutional commands: The government cannot punish you for refusing to pray.
Janny actually suggested an alternative: staying at the home of some family friends. That option was rejected, though, so Janny went to the shelter… but didn’t participate in the religious activities. Because he didn’t participate, he was kicked out out of the shelter. Because he was kicked out of the shelter, Gamez revoked Janny’s parole and sent him back to jail.
The case, Janny v. Gamez, involves Mark Janny of Colorado, an atheist whose First Amendment religious-freedom rights were violated when he was sent back to jail after he refused to take part in worship services, Bible studies, and religious counseling mandated by his parole officer.
More than two years ago, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Denver) recognized that every person has “the basic right to be free from state-sponsored religious coercion.”
Now, the district court has ruled that Janny is eligible to recover damages for the violations of his religious freedom. Specifically, Janny is eligible to recover punitive damages, compensatory damages for loss of liberty and economic damages for loss of wages for part of the period of his confinement, and nominal damages. The case is scheduled to go to trial in July of 2024.
Americans United and the ACLU issued the following statements in response to today’s decision:
Rachel K. Laser, CEO and president at Americans United: “This is a victory for Mark Janny and for religious freedom. Our country’s fundamental principle of church-state separation guarantees that everyone has the right to believe as they choose, so long as they don’t harm others. That means that our government must never force anyone to practice a faith that is not their own, and of course must never jail anyone for refusing to submit to religious proselytization.”