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The Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, Nev., is seen on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Tuesday from lawyers fighting for a Carson City prisoner’s right 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 alleges that Espinosa’s constitutional rights are being denied because NDOC has failed to offer Humanists the same benefits as other faith groups.

Lawyer Monica Miller of the American Humanist Association — a group whose slogan is “Good Without a God” — first had to fight against the notion that the case was moot because the prison system has since listed Humanism as a recognized religious group on an official chart. She noted that certain rights, such as recognizing Humanist holidays and pre-approving group meetings, are not delineated on the chart for Humanists but were afforded seemingly automatically to Hebrew Israelites, another religious group approved at the same time.

“The case is a charge of discrimination, so the relevant issue is the disparate treatment of two groups,” Miller said. “And the fact that they are claiming our case for discrimination is moot by disparately treating Humanists with another group at that same time, to me, is a little bit absurd.” 

Chief Deputy Nevada Attorney General Randall Gilmer represented the NDOC and pushed for dismissal of the case, telling the three-judge panel in San Francisco that the issue was that Espinosa had not filled out all the appropriate forms to request recognition of specific holidays. He told the judges that in different court filings, Humanists have mentioned different numbers of holidays, and sometimes as few as one.

“These are issues that have to be decided by discussing it with the adherents within the institutions,” Gilmer said. “It would be very weird for us to dictate to them what their holidays should be.”

The judges heard arguments for 20 minutes but did not make a ruling on the case.

Espinosa, 40, is in prison on convictions of robbery and sexual assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced in Washoe County to life in prison with the possibility of parole, according to prison records.

The original complaint says that Espinosa sincerely holds a belief in Humanism, which — like atheism — believes God does not exist. But Humanism also espouses “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,” according to the lawsuit. 

Humanists also have holidays including National Day of Reason (May 2), Darwin Day (February 12), HumanLight (in December), as well as solstice-related holidays. They have clergy, who are typically known as “celebrants” and perform weddings, funerals, baby-welcoming ceremonies and counseling, and adherents are united by a document called the Humanist Manifesto III.

“Humanism comforts, guides, and provides meaning to him in the way that religions traditionally provide such comfort, guidance, and meaning,” the lawsuit says of the plaintiff. “By practicing Humanist principles in his relationships, Espinosa is confident that he is acting in a positive way.”

Espinosa sought the opportunity to meet with others who sincerely hold Humanist convictions and to have official prison records reflect that he identifies as a Humanist. Since 2014, Espinosa has been asking for space for Humanists to store materials such as books and DVDs, as well as the opportunity to congregate in groups and discuss their shared worldview. 

But according to the complaint, his requests were either denied or delayed by a chaplain, and no accommodations had been made to Humanists by the time the issue ended up in court. NDOC has at least 27 recognized faith groups, including Scientology, Wicca, Islam and several subgroups of Christianity.

“Defendants’ actions described above lack a secular purpose, have the effect of promoting, favoring and endorsing some religions over others and religion over non-religion generally, and result in an excessive entanglement between government and religion,” the complaint said.

In dismissing the complaint in December 2017, Nevada-based federal Judge Robert C. Jones wrote that Espinosa had failed to say how his Humanist beliefs were distinct from secular moral philosophy to the point that they would qualify as a religion.

Jones also cited Webster’s dictionary, which states that “[R]eligion is the ‘belief in and reverence for a supernatural power accepted as the creator and governor of the universe,’” and a court case that argued that “if anything can be religion, then anything the government does can be construed as favoring one religion over another, and ... the government is paralyzed.” 

In their appeal, the plaintiffs noted that the Federal Bureau of Prisons and prisons in several states formally recognize Humanism as a religion. Miller also criticized the District Court’s conclusion on the matter.

“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,” she said in a statement after oral arguments. “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.”

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