ACLU Files Lawsuit in Defense of Catholic Man Coerced to Convert

December 06, 2005

DETROIT – After exhausting all avenues in the Michigan courts, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced today that it has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a Catholic man who was criminally punished for not completing a Pentecostal drug rehabilitation program.

“This man was punished for insisting on the right to practice Catholicism and refusing conversion to the Pentecostal faith as a condition of a court order,” said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. “The Michigan courts would not acknowledge his First Amendment rights, but we’re confident that the federal court will.”

Joseph Hanas of Genesee County, now 23 years old, 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 Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 whatsoever and only coercion of the Pentecostal religion, Mr. Hanas left Christian Outreach. Though he objected to a pervasively religious rehabilitation program, he was denied reinstatement to the drug court program.

The judge acknowledged that Mr. Hanas had been prohibited from practicing his religion, that Christian Outreach was a religious program, not a treatment program where there were no drug or alcohol counselors on staff, and that Hanas was prohibited from attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings.

Nonetheless, the judge determined that he did not satisfactorily complete the program, removed him from the Drug Court and sentenced him to jail for three months 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.

“I needed help,” said Joe Hanas. “Instead I was forced to practice someone else’s religion and I’m still being punished for that.”

Mr. Hanas has sought review for a reversal of his conviction in the Michigan Court of Appeals, the Michigan Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. These courts have the option to review or not review cases and chose not to.

However, the federal court must address the merits of the lawsuit filed today. Today’s lawsuit, referred to as a “habeas corpus petition,” seeks a reversal of Mr. Hanas’ conviction. Mr. Hanas remains on probation.

Along with Ms. Moss, Cooperating Attorneys Andrew Nickelhoff, Gregory Gibbs and Glenn Simmington, and ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg are representing Mr. Hanas.

The ACLU frequently defends the rights of free religious expression for all people. In Michigan, the ACLU intervened on behalf of a Christian high school valedictorian after which the school agreed to stop censoring religious yearbook entries.

In other states, the ACLU has supported the rights of students to distribute Christian literature at their school, and recently defended the First Amendment rights of a Baptist minister to preach his message on public streets.

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