After an inmate’s long fight, NC prisons ordered to treat his views like other faiths

Barbed wire fences surround a North Carolina prison.
Barbed wire fences surround a North Carolina prison. N&O file photo

Editor’s Note: Since publication, the N&O has learned that passages from this story were taken in large part or in whole from Judge to North Carolina Prisons: Humanism Is a Faith Group by The Associated Press without attribution. This is a violation of our standards. We apologize to our readers.

Kwame Teague has been a North Carolina prison inmate since 1996 when he was convicted of kidnapping and murdering two people in a field outside Goldsboro.

While serving two life sentences for the crimes, Teague has become an incarcerated writer whose tales about Dutch, “gangster extraordinaire,” have made him a popular author in the hip-hop fiction genre.

The 45-year-old from Newark, N.J., also has been lobbying for the past six years for the North Carolina prison system to recognize humanism as a faith group.

Kwame J. Teague NC Department of Public Safety

Teague started his quest on Jan. 18, 2012, when he filed an Inmate Request Form seeking answers.

“I am a Humanist although I’m listed as a Muslim, this is because Humanism does not have any allotted time nor is it recognized as a religion in N.C.,” Teague wrote to state prison officials while he was incarcerated at Warren Correctional Institution. “The Federal government however, does recognize it as such. I want to know what must be done to recognize Humanism here at Warren.”

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle gave him the answer he sought, but the inmate had to file a lawsuit in federal court in 2015, joined by the American Humanist Association, to gain recognition and the chance to meet with other inmates to study and discuss his faith.

In the order, Boyle wrote that prison officials failed to justify treating humanism differently from those religions that are recognized in the state’s prisons.

Boyle ordered the state to adjust its computer system so prisoners who declare themselves humanists can be registered as such.

Since his first inquiry in 2012, a prison department committee that reviews such requests has provided several reasons for rejecting Teague’s request for the prisons to recognize humanism.

The American Humanist Association, which has helped other prisoners across the country gain similar recognition, describes humanism as a nontheistic belief system and a “rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.”

“We strive to bring about a progressive society where being good without a god is an accepted and respected way to live life,” the group says.

In the lawsuit filed three years ago, the association contended that prison leaders were violating the religious establishment and equal protection clauses of the Constitution by repeatedly denying Teague’s request to receive humanist publications in prison and to meet with others throughout the system to discuss their beliefs.

The prison system, attorneys for Teague and the association contended, “must demonstrate that its refusal to authorize Humanist meetings while authorizing meetings for Buddhists, Wiccans, Rastafarians, and others, furthers ‘a compelling government interest.’”

Among the more than 37,000 inmates in North Carolina’s state prisons, Teague and the association identified at least eight other inmates who say they are humanists and association members, Boyle’s order stated.

Teague and his attorneys pointed out that prison officials had recognized the Aquarian Christine Church Universal after receiving a request from one inmate. In one document in the lawsuit, Teague’s attorneys pointed out that three inmates listed themselves as Aquarian CCU, six listed themselves as Quakers, and six as Eastern Orthodox.

“There are far more known Humanist inmates,” Teague’s lawsuit states.

Prison spokeswoman Pamela Walker told the Associated Press on Thursday, hours after the ruling, that prison officials would have to review the ruling before deciding next steps.

“Humanist inmates have the same constitutional rights to study and discuss their values in a group as other religious inmates do,” Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said in a statement after Boyle’s ruling. “We are thrilled with the court’s just decision today and stand ready to defend others who face discrimination because of their Humanist views.”

The association counts the North Carolina case among other recent court victories, including one in 2015 on behalf of humanists in federal prisons in a case against the U.S. Department of Justice.

But the association continues to fight for inmates in state prisons across the country.

A prisoner at Nevada’s Lovelock Correctional Institute has turned to the federal courts in an attempt to form a humanist study group so that he and like-minded inmates can get together and discuss their world views. In December, a judge in the Nevada case took a different stand than Boyle.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Jones said in the Nevada case that the inmate “had not alleged how his Humanist beliefs differed from traditional secular moral philosophy in a way sufficient to qualify as a religion under the religion clauses.”

That decision has been appealed and Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have filed a friend of the court brief in that case to show support for prisoners who may not believe in a divine authority.

“The need to foster a safe space for Humanists and other nontheistic people to congregate and discuss their shared values and beliefs is becoming more widely recognized in other contexts as well, as the percentage of Humanists and other nontheistic citizens continues to grow,” their brief states. “A number of major U.S. universities — including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, New York University, University of Central Florida, Rutgers, and American University — now have Humanist chaplaincies. Moreover, atheists, Humanist chaplains, and other nontheistic individuals now regularly provide opening secular invocations at government meetings around the country where a government entity has a policy of allowing theistic individuals to give opening invocations.”

Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser had this to say about the fight to recognize humanism inside the prisons: “Like the rights of all Americans, the rights of prisoners should never depend on whether they believe in a divine authority. Prisons should give Humanist inmates the same rights that other inmates have to observe and study their beliefs.”