RALEIGH, N.C. — A prominent humanist organization is asking a federal court to require the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the Lanesboro Correctional Institution to grant an inmate’s desire to form a humanist study group while incarcerated.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) is representing Kwame Jamal Teague, who has been behind bars since 1996 and wishes to meet with other humanists who share his views. His records currently state that he is Islamic, and he has requested that officials change his religious affiliation to note that he is rather a secular humanist.
However, the Department of Public Safety does not include humanism or atheism in its list of recognized religions, as it does not view adherents as being a part of a religious group.
Reasons for rejecting Teague’s request have included notations that humanism “appears to be a philosophy of life, a free way of thinking” as opposed to a form of religious worship, that it does not draw from a single source for direction, but is rather based on “individual belief” on how one can live for the “greater good” of humanity, and that humanists “do not believe in a deity, but drew from a Christian way of thinking on how to treat their fellow man.”
Teague disagrees that these factors should disqualify humanists from being recognized. He says that while atheism and humanism are not theistic, they are still “equivalent to a religion.”
“Whereas atheism is a religious view that essentially addresses only the specific issue of the existence of a deity, the humanism affirmed by Teague is a broader worldview that includes, in addition to a non-theistic view on the question of deities, an affirmative naturalistic outlook; an acceptance of reason, rational analysis, logic, and empiricism as the primary means of attaining truth; an affirmative recognition of ethical duties; and a strong commitment to human rights,” AHA’s complaint reads.
It also argues that humanism has a similar structure to religion because it utilizes clergy members known as “celebrants” to officiate ceremonies, and observes special days, such as Darwin Day.
Teague believes that there are at least 20 humanist or atheist inmates at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, some of whom have expressed a desire to form a group, which has not been permitted. AHA says that because the Department recognizes Buddhism, Rastafarianism and Wicca as religions, but not humanism, Teague’s First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights are being violated.
“The Department’s disparate treatment of Humanist inmates violates decades of clearly established legal precedent,” Monica Miller, senior counsel at AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said in a statement on Friday. “The Supreme Court has long held that Secular Humanism, and even atheism, must be treated as equivalent to a religion for First Amendment purposes.”
The organization has moved for summary judgment in the case, meaning that it seeks for the judge to rule in its favor at this point without proceeding to a trial, seeing no dispute over the facts.
As previously reported, in 2014, a federal judge in Oregon ruled in favor of a prisoner who likewise wished to form a humanist study group behind bars, but was prohibited from doing so since the prison system did not recognize humanism as a bonafide religion.
“The court finds that secular humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes,” wrote Judge Ancer Haggerty. “Allowing followers of other faiths to join religious group meetings while denying Holden the same privilege is discrimination on the basis of religion.”