TOPEKA — A Topeka Correctional Facility inmate who is plaintiff in a federal religious-freedom lawsuit complained of the prison’s 8-foot wooden cross, Christian-themed radio and television broadcasts, and housing units saturated with proselytizing messages.
Inmates at the all-female prison are subjected to “Christian propaganda,” the suit says, and remain under threat of punishment if caught moving objectionable religious materials. The plaintiff, Shari Webber-Dunn, is a practicing Thelemite convicted in a southwest Kansas murder who alleges religious bias of Kansas Department of Corrections and TCF staff is reflected in the “oppressive message that Christianity looms over the inmates at all times.”
American Humanist Association’s legal center in Washington, D.C., filed suit Wednesday in documents asserting inmates’ constitutional rights were violated by the state government’s coercive religious atmosphere and pressure to participate in Christian activities. In a separate filing, Webber-Dunn’s attorneys requested a U.S. District Court trial in Kansas City, Kan.
AHA champions the causes of atheists and others, which include attempts to restrain government from impinging on the First Amendment standard of separation of church and state.
“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 American Humanist Association.
Defendants are KDOC Secretary Joseph Norwood, TCF Warden Shannon Meyer, TCF facility administrator Kevin Keith and an unnamed state corrections employee responsible for shielding First Amendment rights of inmates.
Samir Arif, a Department of Corrections spokesman, declined to comment, citing agency policy on pending litigation.
The lawsuit emerged while Gov. Sam Brownback awaits U.S. Senate confirmation as international ambassador of religious freedom in the administration of President Donald Trump. Brownback has touted reduction in recidivism rates among state prisoners who participated in a faith-based mentoring program.
Webber-Dunn, 49, received a minimum 40-year sentence in the shooting death of her estranged husband, Scott Webber, in 1994. His body was found in a trailer house in Hugoton.
Webber-Dunn was convicted of aiding and abetting first-degree murder and of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. Evidence at Webber-Dunn’s trial indicated she wanted her husband killed to resolve a child custody dispute and avoid accompanying legal fees.