A convicted murderer in Kansas has filed a lawsuit this week accusing prison officials of "imposing Christian beliefs" on her and other inmates.
The Wichita Eagle reports that the plaintiff, Shari Webber-Dunn, is serving her sentence in the state's Topeka Correctional Facility, where she claims officials have created a "coercive atmosphere where inmates are pressured to spend their time in a highly religious atmosphere and to participate in religious activities and prayers."
This "coercive atmosphere," she says, violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
"There is no valid reason why Christian materials should be displayed there in a state-owned and operated correctional facility," Webber-Dunn says in the lawsuit, specificaly pointing out the prisons' Christian-themed radio and television broadcasts, an 8-foot cross and proselytizing messages.
She alleges religious bias on the part of the Kansas Department of Corrections and the correctional facility's staff. She claims she brought her concerns to the attention of facility administrators and team managers for the prison, and while the violations were reported, "no action had been taken to correct the problems."
The American Humanist Association (AHA), based in Washington, D.C., joined Webber-Dunn's lawsuit, accusing the prison of engaging in a government establishment of religion.
"Prisons are not exempt from the Constitution and prisoners do not lose the shield from state-sponsored religion provided by the establishment clause," said David Niose, legal director of the AHA.
Webber-Dunn, 49, received a minimum 40-year sentence after her conviction on first-degree murder charges following the shooting death of her estranged husband, Scott Webber, in 1994, the newspaper reported.
She identifies herself as a practitioner of Thelema, a "spiritual philosophy" adapted from ancient Egyptian religion.
"Most Thelemites hold that every person possesses a true will, a single overall motivation for their existence," reads a website explaining the religion. "The law of Thelema mandates that each person follow their true will to attain fulfillment in life and freedom from restriction of their nature. Because no two true wills can be in real conflict, this law also prohibits one from interfering with the true will of any other person."
Newsweek notes that this is not the first lawsuit by prison inmates accusing the state of violating the separation of church and state. A 2003 lawsuit against the Prison Fellowship Ministries in Iowa alleged that individuals who participated in the program were given special privileges. Because the program was found to "impermissibly endorse religion," it was forced to leave the Iowa prison in 2006.