Muslims win legal fight over prison regulations
July 1, 2004
Denny Walsh, Bee Staff Writer
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Friday July 2, 2004
California prison officials have been barred by a Sacramento federal judge from imposing discipline or denying sentence reductions based on Muslim inmates’ half-inch beards and attendance at religious services.
In a 35-page order that ends the long-running class-action lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton on Friday granted summary judgment in favor of the inmates and issued a permanent injunction against the Department of Corrections.
He found the two actions necessary to protect the rights of Muslim inmates under a 2000 federal statute “enacted to prevent correctional institutions from restricting religious liberty.”
The freedom of individuals to believe in, practice, and promote the religion of choice without (government) interference, harrassment, or other repercussions – as long as practices based on, or resulting from, those beliefs do not break the law (e.g. do not encourage or result in fraud, tax evasion, murder, terrorism, acts designed to undermine the government or the constitution, the use of unethical persuasion tactics, etcetera).
The practice of discouraging religious freedom and the freedom to express and/or promote all or certain religious beliefs – with repercussions ranging from discrimination and harassment to prevention and prosecution (by legal and/or illegal means). Does not cover legitimate legal measures designed to prevent and/or prosecute illegal practices such as fraud, tax evasion, murder, terrorism, acts designed to undermine the government or the constitution, the use of unethical persuasion tactics, etcetera.
a) Refusing to acknowledge and support the right of individuals to have their own beliefs and related legitimate practices.
b) Also, the unwillingness to have one’s own beliefs and related practices critically evaluated.
The following do not constitute religious intolerance:
Acknowledging and supporting that individuals have the right and freedom to their own beliefs and related legitimate practices, without necessarily validating those beliefs or practices.
Karlton also ordered attorneys for inmates and prison officials to come up with a plan within 30 days to locate and expunge past disciplinary actions based on the beards and worship.
The inmates’ attorney, Susan Christian, said Wednesday she has mixed feelings now that the protracted legal struggle is over.
“I’m happy now to finally have this ruling, and I hope it at least gives the department pause in contemplating the accommodation of other state prisoners’ exercise of religion,” Christian said.
On the other hand, she added, there is a lingering sense of frustration over the state’s stubborn resistance.
Muslim inmates at California State Prison, Solano, filed complaints with the court in 1995 and 1996, claiming prison authorities refused to accommodate their practice of Islam.
Inmates who left their work or class assignments to attend Jumu’ah services on Fridays at midday were subjected to progressive discipline resulting in the imposition of penalties and loss of privileges. They also were denied sentence-reducing credits.
Muslim scholars and imams, or prayer leaders, said Jumu’ah is commanded by the Quran and must take place every Friday after the sun reaches its zenith and before afternoon prayer.
Inmates who grew beards because of religious beliefs were considered “program failures” and subjected to progressive discipline and prevented from earning good-time credits.
Muslim men believe Islam requires a beard to demonstrate loyalty to the prophet Muhammad.
Prison officials asserted the grooming regulations were necessary to identify inmates for the purpose of preventing escapes and controlling movement within the prison.
The officials maintained that correctional officers must quickly identify inmates to prevent disturbances and, without the regulations, identification would become impossible if an inmate quickly changed his appearance by shaving his beard.
The department has waged a decade-long legal fight with the Muslims, insisting that Jumu’ah and beards were a threat to prison security.
Karlton appointed counsel for the inmates in October 1997 and, 13 months later, consolidated all complaints into a single lawsuit and certified it as a class action.
Since then, the judge has issued 15 preliminary injunctions prohibiting enforcement of the prison regulations at issue, with the Department of Corrections unsuccessfully appealing all but one. Prison law required the expiration of each preliminary injunction after 90 days.
The opposing claims originally turned on standards for inmates’ practice of religion set in a landmark 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision. But, in September 2000, then-President Clinton signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits government interference with prisoner worship absent a compelling reason.
Karlton allowed the addition of a claim under that act to the suit, but the state challenged the new law as exceeding congressional authority. Karlton and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the challenge, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied the state’s request to consider the matter.
Karlton said in his final order that under current regulations, some inmates may take as many as 16 hours off a month to receive visitors, attend special services, and go to certain recreation and entertainment events.
“Given the extensive set of secular exemptions to the prison work requirements, the policy of punishing inmates for one hour of weekly Jumu’ah attendance cannot be said to be the least restrictive means of achieving the state’s asserted interest in instilling a work ethic,” he wrote.
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