POLITICS
11/03/2014 03:42 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

Federal Court Ruling Extends Equal Protection Rights To Atheists

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A federal district court in Oregon has ruled in favor of an atheist inmate who filed suit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons in April for rejecting his requests to form a humanist study group on grounds that humanism was not listed as a religious affiliation under existing prison classifications.

In a decision issued Thursday, Senior District Judge Ancer Haggerty ruled that prison officials violated inmate Jason Holden's constitutional rights under the First and Fifth Amendments, and moved to recognize secular humanism as a religion for "Establishment Clause purposes."

The case, co-filed by the American Humanist Association, marks a victory for secular groups seeking access to the same legal rights afforded to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims -- all of whom are permitted to organize under the current federal prison system.

"As humanists, we believe in the ability of mankind to transcend their differences and to reach some common ground and make the world a better place," Holden, who is currently serving time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Oregon, explained in an Uptown Radio interview in May. "We simply want the same thing other religious groups are provided."

In siding with the plaintiffs, Haggerty cited a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Torcaso v. Watkins, which referred to “Secular Humanism” as a religion in its landmark decision to prohibit state and federal governments from passing any laws that impose religious requirements on holding public office.

"The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes," Haggerty, a Bill Clinton appointee, concluded on Thursday. "Allowing followers of other faiths to join religious group meetings while denying Holden the same privilege is discrimination on the basis of religion."

Earlier this year, the U.S. Army also moved to include "Humanist" as a religious affiliation, allowing the 3.6 percent of Army members who identify as humanists to organize formally and gain access to secular chaplains and services.

In the U.S., the number of people who identify as nonreligious has been slowly rising in recent years, according to a 2013 Pew Research poll. As of 2012, roughly one-fifth of Americans and a third of adults younger than 30 expressed no religious affiliations.

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