Church and state are too cozy at the Topeka Correctional Facility, according to a convicted murderer who has spent the past 23 years inside Kansas’s prison system.
Shari Webber-Dunn — who in 1994 was handed a 40-year-minimum prison sentence for her role in the murder of her estranged husband — claims in a federal lawsuit filed last week that inmates at Kansas’s only women’s prison are subjected to an endless profusion of Christian imagery and propaganda, from the material posted on bulletin boards to the movies played in the common room.
The net effect, Webber-Dunn claims, adds up to an institutional message “imposing Christian beliefs on inmates” in a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit argues the prison has created a “coercive atmosphere where inmates are pressured to spend their time in a high religious atmosphere and to participate in religious activities and prayers, thus violating the establishment clause.”
Webber-Dunn’s case is being brought by the American Humanist Association, a D.C.-based organization that says it has 34,000 members nationally and is geared toward “advancing and preserving separation of church and state and the constitutional rights of humanists, atheists, and other freethinkers.” According to the legal complaint, the inmate identifies herself as a practitioner of Thelema, a religious sect rooted in the writings of early-20th-century mystic Aleister Crowley.
“Prisons are not exempt from the Constitution and prisoners do not lose the shield from state-sponsored religion provided by the Establishment Clause,” David Niose, the humanist association’s legal director, told the Topeka Capital-Journal.
Samir Arif, a Department of Corrections spokesman, declined to comment on the suit, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
The legal complaint was filed against Joseph Norwood, the head of the Kansas Department of Corrections, as well as staff members at the Topeka prison. The lawsuit outlines instances of what Webber-Dunn sees as state-sponsored religion within the Kansas prison. For example, in the day room — a “public area where inmates go to watch TV, cook meals in the microwaves, sit at tables and visit, iron their clothing, ride an exercise bike, and other activities” — a large billboard featured Christian prayers throughout Webber-Dunn’s stay. Other boards were hung with notices “which contained Christian iconography, scripture, prayer, and a personal testimony,” the lawsuit says.
“Not only does the TCF post Christian propaganda on bulletin boards in a state-owned and operated correctional facility, inmates are under threat of punishment if they are caught removing anything from the bulletin boards,” the complaint states.
The lawsuit also says an eight-foot wooden Christian cross stood in the facility’s weekend and holiday visitation room. “Even though inmates and visitors of all faiths are in the visitation room every weekend, the cross is never covered or removed when the room is not being used for a religious service,” the suit says. “Webber-Dunn views the cross as disrespectful to all non-Christians and as echoing the oppressive message that Christianity looms over the inmates at all times and they are powerless to do anything about it.”
The music and movies are similarly Christian-themed, according to the complaint. Films that are shown are often “Christian movies,” such as 2016’s “I’m Not Ashamed.”
“When inmates who participate in the ‘No Strings Attached’ program gather to learn to crochet and make items that are donated to charity, Christian music is played while the inmates crochet,” the suit says.
The prison also provides “free Christian literature including monthly church newsletters, daily devotional guides, Bible tracts, various magazine, prayer cards, pamphlets” for the inmates. Yet when Webber-Dunn wanted to buy a 3½-inch statue of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, she had to hire a lawyer to compel the prison to approve the religious purchase.
The lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court to issue a permanent injunction enjoining the state from continuing to allow Christian practices inside the facility.
This is not the first time religion inside a prison has become the basis for a legal challenge. In 2003, Americans United for Separation of Church and State brought a lawsuit against prisons in Iowa over a Christian-based program that was accused of showing preferential treatment to participants. The organization won and the program ended. The decision was upheld by an appeals court in December 2007.
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