Religious Coercion Of Idaho Inmate Was Wrong, AU Tells Appeals Court

Government may not force Americans to participate in religious indoctrination and courts must not interpret the Constitution in ways that allow such coercion, Americans United said in a recently filed court brief.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Oct. 6, Americans United told the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that an Idaho inmate was unfairly treated by a local judge and an Idaho ministry that tried to force her to convert to Christianity and participate in Pentecostal worship.

Janene Cowles was given the choice of participating in a “discipleship/recovery” program at the Boise Rescue Mission or continuing to serve a one-year sentence in the Ada County Jail on a drug conviction. Cowles enrolled in the program, but was kicked out – and returned to jail – when she failed to convert to Christianity.

“This is just plain wrong,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “When the courts and religious groups join forces to indoctrinate Americans in a particular faith, they have gone too far. The Constitution does not allow this kind of government-assisted religious coercion.”

Cowles and the Intermountain Fair Housing Council sued the mission for religious discrimination. But a U.S. district court held that the mission’s ejection of Cowles from its residence is protected under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion. The court said the federal Fair Housing Act, therefore, cannot be applied to the mission.

In its brief with the appellate panel, Americans United said the district court was wrong. The religious freedom provisions of the Constitution, AU argued, do not exempt religious groups from neutral, generally applicable laws such as the Fair Housing Act.

Furthermore, AU continued, when religious groups work closely with the government in a “symbiotic relationship,” they cannot claim exemption from laws and constitutional safeguards that protect Americans from coerced religion.

“By [the mission’s] own admission,” AU asserted, “the Discipleship Program depends heavily upon the State for participants and, in return, provides the State with a free residential program. Accordingly, [the mission] functions as a state actor – and must comply with constitutional guarantees – at least insofar as it houses court-mandated attendees.”

The Americans United brief in Intermountain Fair Housing Council v. Boise Rescue Mission Ministries was written by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Washington, D.C., attorneys Clifford M. Sloan, Jennifer Mullin and Ray D. McKenzie.