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Michigan to Accommodate Religious Rights of Muslim Prisoners

Michigan to Accommodate Religious Rights of Muslim Prisoners

by David M. Reutter

After a Michigan federal district court ruled the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) had violated the religious rights of Muslim prisoners by denying them the ability to attend Eid meals and refusing to accommodate their need to attend weekly prayer services, the MDOC reached an agreement which included the provision of halal food and attendance at religious services that conflict with prison work schedules.

Those legal victories came in a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Michigan in 2009 on behalf of Muslim and Seventh-day Adventist prisoners alleging violations of their rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In a May 24, 2013 order, the district court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs after adopting a magistrate’s report and recommendation. The court’s subsequent order of relief declared the class members have a right “to attend, congregate for, observe and celebrate ... the Eid ul-fitr and Eid ul-Adha feasts.” The MDOC was ordered to use the Handbook on Religious Groups to identify those feasts, as well as Ramadan fasts and Seders.

Special provisions for the observance of religious holidays or holy days are permitted only as authorized by MDOC policy. That policy must allow prisoners to “be released from work or school assignments to attend group religious services and approved holy day observances.”

That order pushed the MDOC to reach a settlement to resolve the case. A November 2013 settlement agreement affirmed the district court’s previous order and granted two other forms of relief.

The first requires MDOC officials to provide a religious meal that comports with halal tenets and satisfies basic nutritional requirements applicable to all prisoners. The second requires the MDOC to post notices and grant expungement, upon a prisoner’s request, of a misconduct or other administrative action caused by the previous unconstitutional policy from August 1, 2003 to the date of the judgment.

The latter relief is available to prisoners who were disciplined for “(a) request to attend or attendance at a religious service which conflicted with a work, school, or administrative detail or assignment or (b) refusal to attend a work, school, or administrative detail due to a conflicting religious service.”

“The government may not deprive Americans of their fundamental right to practice their religion, even when they are in prison,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan. “Thanks to this groundbreaking case, Muslim prisoners will no longer be forced to eat food that violates their religious principles and they won’t be punished for joining weekly prayers or celebrating important religious holidays.”

The settlement agreement was approved by the district court on November 20, 2013. The court granted stipulated attorney fees and costs of $248,560.99 to plaintiffs’ counsel in January 2014; the plaintiffs were represented by the ACLU of Michigan and the law firm of Dickinson Wright PLLC.

Following approval of the settlement, a number of class members filed motions seeking to enforce the settlement terms or hold the MDOC in contempt – including a motion related to Eid feasts during the holy month of Ramadan. The district court denied all such motions, and several appeals remain pending.

In regard to the Eid feasts, the court wrote in a July 27, 2015 order that it was “satisfied that the MDOC is complying with the terms of the settlement agreement,” explaining that “[t]he only food allowed at the Eid Feasts would be food donated from outside sources. Prisoners receive their regular meals those two days so MDOC does not provide a special meal to celebrate the Eid Feasts.” See: Dowdy-El v. Caruso, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:06-cv-11765.

Related legal case

Dowdy-El v. Caruso