Federal appeals panel: Prison officials not liable for rejecting humanism group

Tuesday, June 27, 2000

Prison officials could not be held liable for denying a former inmate’s requests to form a humanism chapter under the prison’s Religious Services Program, a federal appeals court panel has ruled.

Ben Kalka, who was an inmate in several federal prisons from 1991 until his release earlier this year, sued several Bureau of Prisons officials in September 1997, claiming a violation of his First Amendment freedom of religion rights.

Kalka filed his suit after the warden at a federal prison in Jesup, Ga., denied his request to establish humanism as a recognized religion in the institution. Humanism is a non-theistic, secular-based philosophy, which many view as more of a worldview than a religion.

The prison’s Religious Issues Committee determined that humanism was “more philosophical and educational in nature.” The Bureau of Prisons told Kalka that he could freely practice his humanism and that his group could freely meet as part of the prison’s Education Department, but that the group could not establish itself as part of the Religious Services Department.

Kalka alleged that the Bureau of Prisons’ policy of excluding humanist groups from the prison chapels violated both the free-exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment.

In September 1998, a federal district court assumed that humanism was a religion. However, the lower court reasoned that denying Kalka access to the prison chapel did not prevent him from practicing his humanist beliefs.

On appeal, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed with the lower court, but reached its decision on different grounds in its June 23 opinion in Kalka v. Hawk.

The panel also assumed for argument’s sake that Kalka’s humanism is a religion.

The panel then determined that the prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity shield defendants from liability in civil rights violations if they did not violate a clearly established constitutional right of which a reasonable official should have been aware.

“A reasonable official would not have believed that excluding Kalka’s humanism from the prison’s Religious Services Program was unlawful,” the panel wrote. “There was neither precedent declaring humanism in general to be a religion nor any prior ruling on the religious nature of Kalka’s beliefs.”

Calls to attorneys handling the case were not returned.