Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Tenth Circuit Reinstates Federal Prisoner’s Claim Against BOP Over Denial of Muslim Group Prayer Five Times a Day

by Matt Clarke

On February 9, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reinstated the claim of a Muslim federal prisoner allegedly frustrated in his attempts to observe his religion in prison, including denial of the opportunity to participate in group prayer five times a day.

Ahmed Ajaj is serving a 114-year federal prison sentence in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for a terrorism conviction in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. In 2015, he filed suit in federal court for the District of Colorado, where he was incarcerated at the Administrative Maximum (ADX) prison in Florence, accusing BOP and its officials of violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq.

At issue was BOP’s alleged refusal to provide oral medications after sundown, meaning Ajaj had to break his religious fasts—which he said allowed nothing to be orally ingested—in order to take them. Ajaj also claimed that he was denied other requirements of his Islamic faith, including a “halal” diet, the counsel of a religious leader known as an imam, and group prayer five times a day.

In July 2017, after an attempt at a negotiated settlement in the case failed, Ajaj was moved into the final phase of a 24-month step-down program and transferred from ADX, first to the U.S. Penitentiary (USP) in Florence and then in January 2018 to USP-Terre Haute in Indiana.

BOP then moved for dismissal, arguing that Ajaj’s allegations were moot since they were directed at the ADX. Ajaj opposed the motion, alleging the same RFRA violations persisted at USP-Terre Haute, where medication delivery disrupted his fasting and he was still denied a halal diet, access to an imam, and group prayer except once a day.

The district court dismissed the claims against ADX procedures, plus the group-prayer claim, ruling that Ajaj “no longer ha[s] standing to challenge BOP policies regarding communal prayer” because of evidence presented that he was, in fact, able to pray five times a day in a group at USP-Terre Haute. Also dismissed were all claims against individual defendants, with the district court reasoning that RFRA does not permit the recovery of monetary damages against officials sued in their individual capacities. Furthermore, since the pill policy had been revised, Ajaj’s fasting-accommodation claim was also dismissed.

The case proceeded on the remaining halal-diet and access-to-imam claims. But days before trial, USP-Terre Haute began providing Ajaj halal meals from a local vendor. It also hired an imam, though one who was not of Ajaj’s denomination. Still, that was sufficient for the district court to conclude that Ajaj’s access to an imam was no longer substantially burdened. However, it enjoined BOP from discontinuing the prisoner’s halal food “absent a very good penological reason.”

With the assistance of attorneys Nichole B. Godfrey, Danielle C. Jefferis, Aurora L. Randolph and Laura Rovner of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law Civil Rights Clinic, Ajaj appealed the dismissal of the group-prayer claim as well as the ruling that RFRA did not permit monetary damages against individual-capacity defendants.

Taking up the case, the Tenth Circuit noted that, while the appeal was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court had issued its ruling in Tanzin v. Tanvir, 141 S.Ct. 486 (2020), definitively establishing that individual-capacity damage claims are permissible under RFRA. Yet though Tanzin decided that question, the Court held that qualified immunity may apply to claims for damages against individual-capacity defendants, and it declined to determine whether the defendants in this case were entitled to it.

The Court also disagreed with the district court that it was a “concrete fact” that Ajaj was permitted group prayer five times daily at USP-Terre Haute. Sure he could pray as often as he wanted when out of cell with other Muslims. But not all prayer times fell during hours when prisoners were outside their cells. In fact, prison staff testified that Ajaj usually had the chance for group prayer three to four times a day, and Ajaj testified it was three times a day at most. As the Court noted, “missing one or two daily prayers might be considered permissible in Mr. Ajaj’s religious beliefs, [but] that goes to the merits of his RFRA claim, not its justiciability.”

Furthermore, Ajaj had been transferred during the pendency of the appeal to USP-Allenwood in Pennsylvania, where there were different restrictions on group prayer.

Therefore, the dismissal of Ajaj’s group-prayer and individual-capacity monetary-relief claims was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Ajaj v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 25 F.4th 805 (10th Cir. 2022).

The case has now returned to the district court, where Ajaj continues to be represented by Randolph and Rovner, as well as Darold W. Killmer of Killmer Lane & Newman LLP in Denver. PLN will report further developments as they unfold. See: Ajaj v. Bureau of Prisons, USDC (D. Colo.), Case No. 1:15-cv-00992. 

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

Ajaj v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons

Ajaj v. Bureau of Prisons