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Lawsuit Claims Topeka Prison Imposes Christian Beliefs On Inmates

The American Humanist Association on Wednesday sued Kansas prison officials, alleging the Topeka Correctional Facility promotes Christianity in violation of the First Amendment.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Kansas City, claims the prison displays prayers and messages on prison bulletin boards, has erected an eight-foot cross in one of its multi-purpose rooms and often broadcasts movies with Christian themes on inmates’ televisions.

The lawsuit alleges such imposition of Christian beliefs violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion.

“Prisons are not exempt from the Constitution and prisoners do not lose the shield from state-sponsored religion provided by the Establishment Clause," the association’s legal director, David Niose, said in a statement.

The AHA claims 34,000 members and says it’s dedicated to preserving the separation of church and state and the constitutional rights of “humanists, atheists, and other freethinkers.”

The AHA was joined in the lawsuit by an inmate at the Topeka facility, Shari Webber-Dunn, whom the lawsuit says is registered with the prison as a practicing Thelemite.

Webber-Dunn has been incarcerated for 23 years. She was convicted of helping her boyfriend murder her husband in 1994 and was given a hard 40-year sentence.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Joseph Norwood, secretary of the Kansas Department of Corrections; Shannon Meyer, warden of the Topeka prison; Kevin Keith, facility service administrator of the prison; and John Doe, an unknown corrections official who is said to be responsible for ensuring that inmates’ First Amendment rights are not violated.

Samir Arif, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections, said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Although he is not named as a defendant, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a devout Christian, has been active in promoting religious freedom and was a sponsor of the International Religious Freedom Act when he was a United States senator. The act passed in 1998.

In July, President Donald Trump nominated Brownback to serve as the State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom. He is awaiting confirmation by the Senate. 

In recent years, lawsuits over prison-sponsored religious messages have largely focused on programs that require inmates, as a condition of early release, to participate in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous that contain religious elements. In general, courts have ruled that forcing inmates to attend such programs violates the First Amendment.  

Dan Margolies is KCUR’s health editor. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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