Politics & Government

Kansas prisons impose Christian ‘propaganda,’ inmate alleges

Topeka Correctional Facility
Topeka Correctional Facility Kansas Department of Corrections

A Kansas prison inmate filed suit Wednesday alleging that prison officials are violating her constitutional rights by “imposing Christian beliefs” on inmates.

Shari Webber-Dunn, who identifies herself as a practitioner of Thelema, was joined in the suit by the American Humanist Association based in Washington, D.C.

She is serving a murder sentence at the Topeka Correctional Facility, where, the lawsuit alleges, 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, thus violating the establishment clause.”

The establishment clause is the section of the First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

A spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections said Wednesday that he had not yet seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., seeks an injunction to stop prison officials from what it maintains are unconstitutional actions.

Among the complaints: religious messages and symbols being placed on bulletin boards; encouraging prayer requests; display of a large cross in a multi-purpose room; airing Christian movies on facility televisions; and otherwise “imposing strong Christian values” on inmates.

“Defendants’ actions, failures to act, and policies described above lack a secular purpose, have the effect of promoting, favoring and endorsing religion — particularly Christianity — over non-religion, and result in an excessive entanglement between government and religion, thus violating the establishment clause,” according to the suit.

Webber-Dunn, 49, has been incarcerated since 1995, according to prison records, and will not be eligible for parole until 2034.

According to a website about Thelema: “Most Thelemites hold that every person possesses a true will, a single overall motivation for their existence. 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.”

The state’s prison system faced a summer of unrest, including incidents of violence at Lansing Correctional Facility, the El Dorado Correctional Facility and a prison riot at the facility in Norton, Kan.

The prison system also faced a staffing shortage in recent months as some lawmakers called for a raise for corrections officers. Gov. Sam Brownback responded by announcing a pay increase last month.

Tony Rizzo: 816-234-4435, @trizzkc