A North Carolina inmate has joined the American Humanist Association—a Washington, D.C. nonprofit advocating equality for humanists and atheists—to file a federal lawsuit against the N.C. Department of Public Safety secretary and others for refusing to acknowledge the inmate’s humanism as a formal religion.
Kwame Teague, an inmate in Lanesboro Correctional Institution in Polkton, says he has been denied the opportunity to identify as a humanist, and to form a humanist study group in prison—rights enjoyed by inmates practicing other religions. He and the AHA filed a 22-page civil rights complaint in the Eastern District of North Carolina on Wednesday. In addition to DPS Secretary Frank Perry, the seven defendants include the director of DPS chaplaincy services and the Lanesboro Correctional Institution’s superintendent.
Teague, 42, is serving a life sentence for first degree murder, committed in 1994. He says humanism is his formal religion, and contends that DPS’ refusal to recognize it violates the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
According to the complaint, the AHA has more than 400,000 members and supporters across the country. It is “dedicated to advancing and preserving separation of church and sate and the constitutional rights of humanists, atheists and other freethinkers.” Humanists celebrate various holidays including National Day of Reason, Darwin Day, HumanLight and other solstice-related holidays.
Teague practices a form of secular humanism called Ethical Humanism, a non-theistic worldview that incorporates “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion,” according to the complaint. Teague contends that humanism has a formal structure akin to many religions, with clergy, chaplains and wedding, funeral and baby-welcoming celebrations.
According to the complaint, DPS recognizes other obscure religion classifications—including American Indians, Asatrus, Assemblies of Yahweh, Buddhism, Moorish Science Temple, Rastafarians and Wiccans—permitting them to hold meetings, meet with community-funded or volunteer chaplains on a regular basis, keep religious items in cells, enroll in religious correspondence courses and have community chaplain perform religious rites and rituals.
Teague contends that there are at least 20 humanist and atheist inmates at Lanesboro Correctional Institution. In his complaint, he cites a U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing secular humanism as a religion for First Amendment purposes. He seeks nominal damage payments and attorney fees, and the immediate right to identify as a humanist and hold study groups.