The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan asked the Michigan Supreme Court today to hear a case of a Catholic man who was criminally punished for not completing a Pentacostal drug rehabilitation program. His request to be transferred to another program was denied and he was sentenced to six months in jail and boot camp.
"This man was punished for insisting on the right to practice his own religion and refusing to be religiously indoctrinated as a condition of a court order,” said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. “The endorsement of any faith as well as the discouragement of any other is clearly a violation of the First Amendment.”
Joseph Hanas of Genesee County, now 22 years old, pled guilty in the Genesee Circuit Court to a charge of marijuana possession in February 2001. He was placed in a "Drug Court” for non-violent offenders, allowing for a deferred sentence and possible dismissal of the charges if he successfully completed the Inner City Christian Outreach Residential Program.
Unbeknownst to Mr. Hanas when he entered the program, one of the goals of Christian Outreach was to convert him from Catholicism to the Pentecostal faith. He was forced to read the bible for seven hours a day and was tested on Pentecostal principles. The staff also told him that Catholicism was a form of witchcraft and they confiscated both his rosary and Holy Communion prayer book. At one point, the program director told his aunt that he “gave up his right of freedom of religion when he was placed into this program.” Mr. Hanas was told that in order to complete the program successfully he would have to declare he was “saved” and was threatened that if he didn’t do what the pastor told him to do, he would be “washed of the program and go to prison.”
After seven weeks of receiving no drug treatment whatsoever and only coercion of the Pentecostal religion, Mr. Hanas left Christian Outreach. However, because of his request for reassignment to another facility, Judge Robert M. Ransom determined that he did not satisfactorily complete the program, removed him from the Drug Court and sentenced him to jail for three months and then to boot camp. It was only after his release from boot camp that he finally received drug treatment at a secular residential rehabilitation program.
“I needed help,” said Joe Hanas. “Instead I was forced to practice someone else’s religion.”
"The concern over government-funded religion, specifically in the administration of social service programs that may refuse to hire, or fire employees if they are not of the same religion, has been increasing in recent years.
"This case underscores the danger of the state mandating participation in a religious institution,” said Greg Gibbs, one of the ACLU cooperating attorneys working on this case. “Mr. Hanas’ free exercise of religion has been greatly jeopardized.”
Along with Ms. Moss and Mr. Gibbs, Cooperating Attorney Frank S. Ravitch, and ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg are representing Mr. Hanas.
Read the Application for Leave to Appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court at: http://www.aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/pdf/briefs/hanasapplicationtosupremecourt.pdf
On August 27, the following op-ed appeared in the Detroit News:
Religious coercion in Michigan case shows government should be wary of faith-based programs
In a nation that cherishes religious freedom, how is it that a judge permitted blatant religious coercion, endorsing one religion over another and discouraging one religion? That's what happened when Joe Hanas, a young man from Genesee County, was arrested for a nonviolent drug offense.
As part of a progressive court program, Hanas had a chance to receive drug rehabilitation rather than go to jail. There was, unfortunately, one major problem - Joe Hanas is a practicing Catholic, and the program was operated by Pentecostals. Though the judge's intent may not have been for Hanas to convert to the Pentecostal faith, his test for Hanas' successful completion of the "drug court" program hinged on just that.
The coercion was extreme, and it was an elected judge who allowed it. Hanas' rosary, his Bible and his priest were all kept from him. Staff members, none of them certified or trained drug counselors or therapists, told him that Catholicism is a form of "witchcraft." He was not only forbidden to follow his Catholic faith, but he was also tested on his learning of Pentecostal principles. And, he was told, his rehabilitation would not be complete until he knelt at the altar and proclaimed himself "saved."
Hanas' only alternative was to request a transfer to another program where he would not be coerced into practicing a religious faith alien to his own. However, the judge viewed his early withdrawal from the program as an indication that Hanas was not committed to overcoming his substance abuse. The judge then took away the only opportunity Hanas had to receive affordable residential drug rehabilitation and a possible dismissal of the charges.
Programs like the one Hanas found himself in are common. In fact, these are the kind of programs that President Bush funded when he was governor of Texas; drug addiction is treated as a sin and Bible study is provided as treatment.
It is also the kind of program that Bush wants to fund under his faith-based initiatives, in which religious indoctrination is dressed up to look like social welfare.
Advocates of government-sponsored and government-funded religion say faith-based programs are constitutionally permissible as long as participation in the program is voluntary, and there is a secular alternative.
But Joe Hanas was never given a secular alternative. His choice was to either enroll in the Pentecostal program or go to jail. He wanted help and he needed rehabilitation services, but his constitutional right not to surrender his Catholic beliefs resulted in his being sentenced to boot camp and jail.
What's disturbing about Hanas' case is that he was placed in such a program by a court order, and that ultimately it was his commitment to his religious beliefs that led to the jail sentence.
While faith-based programs may be well-motivated and helpful for some, it is not appropriate for the government to fund them or coerce people to participate in them. There is no doubt that religiously affiliated programs can do a world of good. The work of such agencies as Catholic Family Services, Lutheran Refugee Resettlement and Jewish Vocational Services, which are performed under government contracts, have provided much-needed services to thousands of people over the years.
When these groups accept a government contract to deliver services to the community, they agree to serve the entire community and its needs. They agree to provide services without discriminating over whom they hire and serve. And they don't require participation in religious devotional exercises as a condition of the services they are supposed to give.
Drug courts in Michigan are widely viewed as creative, cost-effective alternatives to incarceration. Because of limited state money for drug rehabilitation, programs are often operated by faith-based organizations. And as more and more drug courts are created, rehabilitation programs will be used more frequently.
The likelihood that there may be other cases like Joe Hanas' is one reason why the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has appealed this case to the Michigan Supreme Court. It is crucial that the constitutional boundaries be clearly defined. Any entanglement between government and religion is harmful to both government and religion, not to mention Joe Hanas.