Group Asks Supreme Court If Rescue Missions Must Choose Either Their Faith Or Accepting Parolees

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U.S. Supreme Court [Photo courtesy U.S. Supreme Court]

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing the former director of the Denver Rescue Mission filed a petition Friday with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to take his case and reverse a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit that threatens to force religious rescue missions to choose between adhering to their faith and offering help to parolees.

Jim Carmack, while director of the Mission, accepted a parolee, Mark Janny, to be a resident as a favor to a parole officer because Janny needed a residence and had no other place to stay. The Mission’s free programs are designed to change lives in the name of Christ by sharing the Gospel and meeting the material and spiritual needs of vulnerable people. As with any Mission resident, Janny was required to participate in a program that combined religion, training, and case management. Janny, an atheist, objected to the religious components and refused to participate in them, thereby disqualifying himself from the program. Because the parole officer insisted that Janny would abide by the Mission’s rules, Carmack kept him at the Mission a bit longer, but Janny still would not comply. After Carmack released him from the program, the parole officer issued a warrant for Janny’s arrest, and Janny returned to jail.

Janny sued, and a federal district court ruled in favor of Carmack. On appeal, the 10th Circuit reversed, holding that, even though the Mission is a private Christian nonprofit, Carmack could not require religious programming without violating the First Amendment because, the appeals court reasoned, he was acting as a government agent within the Mission’s own four walls.

“Faith-based nonprofits shouldn’t be forced to decide between following the religious mission for which they were founded and offering free help to people in need,” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch. “The 10th Circuit’s decision threatens to force this terrible and unconstitutional choice—and needlessly. Mr. Carmack was not a ‘state actor.’ Neither Mr. Carmack nor the Mission wanted to keep parolees against their beliefs in religious facilities. And he and the parole officer had entirely different aims: the officer to provide parolees with a suitable address of record, and Mr. Carmack to change lives through Christian ministry. If religious nonprofits can’t offer free assistance without having to give up their faith mission, they will have to stop helping parolees or close their doors.”

The Denver Rescue Mission is a Christian organization that has served vulnerable people for nearly 130 years. It cares for the homeless and addicted in a variety of ways, all of which are designed to share the Gospel. It is a private religious organization engaged in constitutionally protected nonprofit activity.

“The Tenth Circuit’s ruling is unprecedented and conflicts with decisions of this Court and the First, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits,” the ADF petition to the U.S. Supreme Court in Carmack v. Janny explains. “Indeed, if this case had arisen in any of those Circuits, the outcome would have assuredly been different. Petitioner is aware of no other federal appellate court that has held a religious nonprofit employee even potentially liable as a state actor for ministering to those in need.”

“Unless this Court intervenes, religious nonprofits and their employees face an existential danger,” the petition continues. “Most religious nonprofits are unable to weather the costs of prolonged litigation or the threats posed by damage awards and attorney fees and costs. They will be forced to choose between their faith and their ministries. Likewise, employees will have to choose between living out their faith and potentially incurring ruinous personal liability. That helps no one and harms thousands of prisoners and parolees who voluntarily participate in religious programs, which may be their only available help. This Court should grant review, resolve the substantial Circuit conflict, and uphold religious nonprofits’ ability to work with government officials without becoming state actors themselves.”