NY Loses Prison Religion Case
by Laurie Asseo, January 6, 1997

Washington (AP) -- The Supreme Court Monday refused to let New York require some prison inmates seeking extra privileges to attend Alcoholics Anonymous programs that ask them to believe in some higher power such as God.

The court, without comment, turned down state prison officials' argument that the program is not an unlawful government endorsement of religion.

New York's highest court ruled against the state officials.

Inmate David Griffin, a self-declared atheist, was transferred to the Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Ulster County, N.Y., in 1991.

Prison officials told him that because of his history of drug abuse he would have to attend a prison program for substance abusers to be eligible for expanded family visitation privileges.

The sessions included an Alcoholics Anonymous program, which among its 12 steps asks participants to express a belief in a "power greater than ourselves" and to "turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him."

Griffin challenged the requirement, saying it violated the constitutionally required separation of church and state. A state judge and appellate court ruled against him.

But the New York Court of Appeals ruled in June that prison officials could not deprive inmates of expanded family visits for refusing to participate in the program.

Even though the program allowed people to express a belief in a non-religious higher power, the state court said it had an "overwhelmingly religious tone."

The requirement that inmates attend the program in exchange for extra privileges amounted to a government endorsement of religion, the Florida court said.

In the appeal acted on Monday, New York's lawyers said the program "does not preach or coerce religious belief." The ruling will make it harder to rehabilitate inmates who have abused drugs or alcohol, the lawyers added.

The case is Coughlin vs. Griffin, 96-372.

Graphic Rule