Court Rules Out Class Action Over Legality Of Missouri Prison Programs Requiring Belief In God

Feb 1, 2017

A former Missouri prisoner says a state prison policy requiring inmates to participate in programs involving belief in a deity in order to be considered for early release is unlawful.
Credit Rachel A.K. / Creative Commons-Flickr

For the second time, a judge has dismissed a challenge to a Missouri prison policy that conditions early inmate release on participation in programs requiring belief in a deity.

U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. ruled that the plaintiff, one-time Missouri inmate Randall Jackson, did not meet the requirements for filing a class action and that, in any case, his claims were moot because he was released from prison in December 2014.

Jackson, who was serving a sentence as a persistent DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) offender, first challenged the Missouri Department of Corrections’ prison system’s policy five years ago. Gaitan dismissed it shortly afterward, but a federal appeals court reinstated it and Jackson later sought to represent all inmates “who do not believe in a god.”

In September, Gaitan ruled that the case was moot because Jackson was no longer incarcerated. But rather than throw out the case altogether, he said questions remained whether Jackson “was given a sufficient opportunity to have a secular alternative accommodation which could reasonably lead to graduation from the MDOC (Missouri Department of Corrections) substance abuse program.”

With Gaitan’s latest order declining to certify the case as a class action, Jackson is left with the option of filing an individual claim for damages against MODOC and Gateway Foundation Inc., the private contractor that designed and ran the drug and alcohol rehab programs in question.

Jackson’s lawyer, Chris Hoffman of St. Louis, says he plans to appeal Gaitan’s order but, failing that, will pursue the case as an individual claim.

“But we don’t think a trial of his individual damages is going to be fruitful in addressing the underlying problems,” Hoffman said

“It would just be a terrible thing if the court's ruling were correct,” Hoffman added. “That would mean that nobody could ever challenge a prison policy in the state of Missouri or in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals because the prison could simply transfer the prisoner or release the prisoner.”

A similar challenge was filed in Wisconsin in 2000 by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. A federal appeals court rejected it and upheld the program’s constitutionality.

Hoffman says he plans to reach out to the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State to see if they would be willing to join Jackson’s appeal. 

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