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“American Taliban” Wins Injunction Against BOP Religious Worship Restrictions

“American Taliban” Wins Injunction Against BOP Religious Worship Restrictions

by Derek Gilna

Federal prisoner John Walker Lindh, better known as the “American Taliban,” who pleaded guilty to fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan and carrying an explosive during the commission of a felony, has won a lawsuit against the warden of FCI Terre Haute and the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) related to restrictions on his participation in Muslim group prayer.

In a case filed under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1, et seq., Lindh argued that the warden and other BOP staff had unlawfully interfered with what the district court found to be a “central tenet of the Islamic faith ... the obligation to engage in five daily prayers, or Salat.”

The court found that RFRA’s purpose was to prevent government agencies like the BOP from placing undue restrictions on the free exercise of religious beliefs unless there is a “compelling governmental interest,” which was still subject to “the use of the least restrictive means.” The court found unpersuasive the warden’s assertion that it should defer to his decision to place restrictions on Muslim worship services based on reasons of “institutional security.”

Lindh and 22 other Muslim prisoners were confined in the Communications Management Unit (CMU) located at FCI Terre Haute, so named because all prisoner phone calls and conversations with visitors and other prisoners are monitored and recorded. All areas of the CMU were subject to constant video and audio surveillance, but despite that fact, Lindh and other CMU prisoners were free to move within the unit except when confined for disciplinary reasons or for counts. More than half the prisoners in the CMU were practicing Muslims. [See: PLN, Sept. 2012, p.26; May 2007, p.14].

In a January 11, 2013 ruling, the district court noted that Lindh had a “scant disciplinary history during his incarceration [which] has earned him a classification of low security” within the CMU, appeared to have “sincerely held beliefs” that his religion required five daily congregate prayers, and had “continuously sought to pray in congregation, and [had] done so when allowed to do so in the CMU.”

RFRA was enacted by Congress to allow the free exercise of religion by prisoners in response to court decisions such as Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990) and O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342 (1987), which weakened prisoners’ First Amendment religious rights. Federal prison officials responded to the passage of RFRA by promulgating rules under BOP Policy Statement 5360.09, implemented in 2004, that focused on institutional security concerns rather than religious issues.

Although RFRA was largely struck down in City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997) and subsequently replaced by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), RFRA still applies to federal prisoners.

In his testimony in Lindh’s lawsuit, the warden at Terre Haute had argued that allowing prisoners to assemble in groups, even for orderly supervised religious services, posed a threat to institutional security.

However, the district court noted there was scant evidence of any disruptive behavior by the Muslim prisoners during their group religious observances, all of which were under constant surveillance. The warden also said the BOP’s policy was to be fair, firm and consistent in its application of institutional rules, but the court observed that “special accommodations for different religions [were made], certain prisoners being able to drink wine, have special diets on a daily basis as well as special regular diets, or wear special headwear or clothing consistent with their sincerely held religious beliefs,” with no resulting violence and no apparent compromise of institutional security.

In entering a permanent injunction, the district court found that the ban on congregate religious services for Muslim prisoners at FCI Terre Haute had resulted in a “substantial burden on a religious exercise, in violation of RFRA,” that the BOP had failed to adopt the “least restrictive method” of supervision of such religious observances consistent with institutional security, and that no “compelling governmental interest” excused the non-compliance with RFRA. See: Lindh v. Warden, FCI Terre Haute, Ind., U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ind.), Case No. 2:09-cv-00215-JMS-MJD; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4932.

On April 9, 2013, the district court granted a stipulation for $160,607.52 in fees and costs to be paid to Lindh’s attorneys in his civil suit, plus an additional $8,200 on August 6, 2013. Lindh remains incarcerated in the federal prison system, serving a 20-year sentence; his scheduled release date is in May 2019.


Additional source: The Nation

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Related legal case

Lindh v. Warden, FCI Terre Haute, Ind.