ACLU, Americans United, & Law Firm DLA Piper Secure Federal Appeals Court Victory For Colorado Parolee Jailed For Refusing To Attend Worship Services

August 6, 2021 3:00 pm

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DENVER — The American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and DLA Piper LLP (U.S.) are celebrating today’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which makes clear that the First Amendment prohibits government officials and those who assume governmental duties from punishing people on parole, on probation, and in prison for refusing to take part in religious worship and activities.

The case, Janny v. Gamez, involves Mark Janny of Colorado, a person on parole 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. A federal district court had ruled against Janny, dismissing his case. But the Tenth Circuit recognized that every person has “the basic right to be free from state-sponsored religious coercion” in today’s ruling, which reversed the district court’s decision and determined that Janny may take his case to trial.

The ACLU and Americans United issued the following statements in response to today’s decision:

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief: “The government presented Mr. Janny with a blatantly unconstitutional choice: Go to church, or go to jail. As the court’s decision makes clear, the First Amendment flatly prohibits such religious coercion, and state officials should know better.”

Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director at Americans United: “This is a victory for Mark and for religious freedom. Our country’s fundamental principle of church-state separation guarantees that everyone has the right to believe, or not, as they choose. 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.”

Case Background:

When Mark Janny was on parole in February 2015, Colorado Department of Corrections Parole Officer John Gamez required him to live at the Denver Rescue Mission, a Christian homeless shelter that offers religious programming for parolees and other residents. Gamez had an arrangement with the Mission’s director to place parolees there, with the understanding that they would take part in compulsory religious worship and practice.

Janny, an atheist, objected to the mandatory worship services, Bible studies, and religious counseling, and he asked to be excused from religious programming or to be permitted to live elsewhere. Gamez and the Mission’s staff refused Janny’s request, threatening him with reimprisonment if he did not continue living at the Mission and did not agree to participate in the required religious activities.

When Janny ultimately declined to attend worship services, Gamez revoked his parole, and Janny was jailed for another five months.

Janny filed a federal lawsuit, asserting violations of his First Amendment rights; he represented himself at the district court level. After the district court wrongly dismissed his case, the ACLU, Americans United, and DLA Piper stepped in to represent him on appeal. The appeal was filed with the Tenth Circuit in March 2020.

Janny’s appeal was litigated by Daniel Mach and Heather L. Weaver of the ACLU, Charles Wayne of DLA Piper, and Alex Luchenitser and Richard B. Katskee of Americans United.

Case Documents:

  • The 10th Circuit brief in Janny v. Gamez is available here.
  • Today’s court opinion is available here.

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