Colorado Man Secures Another Court Victory After He was Jailed for Refusing to Attend Christian Worship Services While on Parole

November 15, 2023 12:00 pm

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DENVER — Under a ruling issued yesterday by the U.S. District Court for the Federal District of Colorado, a man whose parole officer sent him back to jail for refusing to take part in religious worship and activities can proceed to trial on his claims for certain kinds of damages, including punitive damages, against the parole officer.

The case, Janny v. Gamez, involves Mark Janny of Colorado, an atheist 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. More than two years ago, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that every person has “the basic right to be free from state-sponsored religious coercion.”

Now, the district court has ruled that Janny is eligible to recover damages for the violations of his religious freedom. Specifically, Janny is eligible to recover punitive damages, compensatory damages for loss of liberty and economic damages for loss of wages for part of the period of his confinement, and nominal damages. The case is scheduled to go to trial in July of 2024.

Janny is represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, and DLA Piper LLP (US).

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

Rachel K. Laser, CEO and president at Americans United: “This is a victory for Mark Janny and for religious freedom. Our country’s fundamental principle of church-state separation guarantees that everyone has the right to believe as they choose, so long as they don’t harm others. 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.”

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. The First Amendment flatly prohibits such religious coercion, and state officials should know better.”

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 had him arrested and initiated parole revocation proceedings, and Janny was incarcerated 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, Americans United, the ACLU, and DLA Piper stepped in to represent him on appeal. The appeal was filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Tenth Circuit in March 2020. In Aug. 2021, the Tenth Circuit ruled in Janny’s favor, allowing his case to proceed.

Janny’s appeal and the proceedings on remand have been litigated by Charles Wayne and Nicole Kozlowski of DLA Piper, Alex Luchenitser of Americans United, and Mach and Heather L. Weaver of the ACLU.

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