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The Daily Tar Heel

Group sues NC in support of humanist inmate

The suit wants prisons to allow atheist and humanist study groups.

Inmate Kwame Jamal Teague claims that his rights were violated when authorities at Lanesboro Correctional Institution in Polkton prohibited him from holding a group meeting for atheists and humanists such as himself. Teague has been in prison since 1996 and is serving two life sentences for a double murder.

Humanism is a worldview that promotes humankind and rational thought as the highest end, as opposed to religions that place faith in God or other deities.

Monica Miller, an attorney from the American Humanist Association, said humanism emphasizes empirical thought as the way to attain truth and a strong commitment to ethics and human rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that inmates retain many of their rights in prison, Miller said, including the right to equal treatment on matters of religion.

“The Supreme Court and lower federal courts have also made clear that atheism and humanism are treated as functional equivalents to ‘religion’ such that the government cannot give preferential treatment to theistic religious groups while denying similar benefits to atheist and humanist groups,” she said.

The lawsuit seeks to allow for similar group meetings for all inmates, regardless of their religious practice.

“It is important that the government respects the rights of all individuals — including atheists and humanists,” Miller said.

For some prisons, the presence of smaller religions or philosophies might be a newer concept, said Stephanie Gaskill, a UNC graduate student studying the intersection of religion within the American prison system.

“In most prisons in the United States, Christianity was once the only officially sanctioned religious practice for prisoners,” said Gaskill in an email.

“Religions practiced in prison appear more diverse now, but it is important to note that such diversity probably existed before, just not in an officially recognized capacity,” she said. “Prisoners 50 years ago may have considered themselves humanists and atheists but not been vocal about it.”

Randall Best, a member of the North Carolina Secular Association, said he believes precedent backs Teague and the AHA.

“If you look at legal precedent, the prison system doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” Best said. “The federal prison system has recognized atheism and humanism as life stances that are equivalent to religion.”

Best said the prison system will not see progress unless advocates are persistent in protecting inmates.

“They would rather not make changes, so they are going to wait until enough fuss is made until they no longer have a choice,” he said.

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