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Inmates in the yard at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City on May 19, 2017. Photo by David Calvert.

Judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have dismissed the case of a Carson City prisoner who sought to have Humanism — a worldview that does not accept the existence of a supreme being — fully recognized as a religion behind bars.

The case stems from a 2016 lawsuit brought by inmate Benjamin Espinosa against Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) Director James Dzurenda, a prison chaplain, and the department’s Religious Review Team. The lawsuit alleged that Espinosa’s constitutional rights are being denied because NDOC failed to offer Humanists the same benefits as other faith groups.

But as the case was proceeding, NDOC changed course and officially recognized Humanism as a faith group.

Lawyer Monica Miller of the American Humanist Association — a group whose slogan is “Good Without a God” — argued in San Francisco earlier this month that the case was not moot because certain rights, such as recognizing Humanist holidays and pre-approving group meetings, were not explicitly delineated for Humanists on an official religious groups chart. She said those benefits were afforded seemingly automatically to Hebrew Israelites, another religious group approved at the same time.

But in a two-page decision released Thursday, judges noted that Nevada officials “represented to the court that the recognition is ‘very permanent’ and that Humanism is ‘entitled to all the same rights and privileges of all other recognized faith groups.’” 

They said the state is in the clear because “subsequent events made it absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.”

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said the group would not be giving up yet.

“We still see indications that Humanists imprisoned in the Nevada corrections system aren’t yet receiving the same rights and privileges of all other recognized faith groups,” he said in an email. “So we’ll be seeking to have the entire panel of judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reconsider this hasty decision.”

Updated at 3 p.m. on Aug. 22, 2019 to add a comment from the executive director of the American Humanist Association.

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