ACLU Declares Victory for Catholic Man Coerced to Convert or Face Jail Time

November 30, 2007

Detroit — A federal judge in Detroit ruled today that the constitutional rights a Catholic man were violated when he was sent to jail for asking a drug court judge to remove him from a drug rehabilitation program that coerced him into practicing the Pentecostal faith.

"We are thrilled with this decisive victory for religious freedom," said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.  "However, it is still difficult to comprehend how a man could be criminally punished in the 21st century for expressing a desire to practice Catholicism instead of another faith."

Joseph Hanas of Genesee County pled guilty in the Genesee Circuit Court to a charge of marijuana possession in February 2001. He was placed in a drug court for non-violent offenders, allowing for a deferred sentence and possible dismissal of the charges if he successfully completed the Inner City Christian Outreach Residential Program.

Unbeknownst to Hanas when he entered the program, one of the goals of Christian Outreach was to convert him from Catholicism to the Pentecostal faith. He was forced to read the bible for seven hours a day and was tested on Pentecostal principles. The staff also told him that Catholicism was a form of witchcraft and they confiscated both his rosary and Holy Communion prayer book. At one point, the program director told his aunt that he "gave up his right of freedom of religion when he was placed into this program." Hanas was told that in order to complete the program successfully he would have to proclaim his salvation at the altar and was threatened that if he did not do what the pastor told him to do, he would be "washed of the program and go to prison." After seven weeks of receiving no drug treatment, Hanas asked the judge to place him in a secular rehabilitation program.

At the time, the drug court judge acknowledged that Christian Outreach was a religious program and that Hanas had been prohibited from practicing his religion. Yet, because Hanas asked to be moved out of the program to which he was assigned, the judge kicked him out of the drug court system and sentenced him to jail and then to boot camp. It was only after his release from boot camp that he finally received drug treatment at a secular residential rehabilitation program.

In a ruling from the bench today, U.S. District Court Judge Arthur J. Tarnow said that Hanas' religious rights were violated by Christian Outreach and the drug court case manager who denied Hanas' pleas to protect him from the religious coercion. Judge Tarnow said that he would issue a written decision later.  The court has yet to decide whether Hanas is entitled to compensation. 

"Today's ruling has implications that reach far beyond this case," said Steinberg.  "For example, a court cannot force a person to attend Alcoholic Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous if she disagrees with the religious overtones of the program. The court must offer secular alternatives as well."

The ACLU has also filed a "habeas corpus" petition in federal court to reverse Hanas' criminal conviction.  That case has yet to be decided.

The case was argued by ACLU Cooperating Attorney Andrew Nickelhoff of Sachs Waldman, PC. Hanas is also represented by Steinberg, Gregory Gibbs and Glenn Simmington of Flint, and ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss.

To read the ACLU of Michigan complaint, visit: http://aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/pdf/hanascomplaint.pdf

To read the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, visit:  http://aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/pdf/hanaspmsj.pdf

To read the Response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, visit http://aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/pdf/hanasresponse.pdf

Related Issues: