John Walker Lindh: Let me pray

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David Demirbilek Contributor
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John Walker Lindh, the alleged American Taliban member captured in Afghanistan by U.S. forces in 2001, entered federal district court Monday to fight against his federal prison for religious freedom.

Out of concern for the spread of radical Islamic ideology, the federal maximum-security prison in Indiana denies Lindh and all other Muslim prisoners the ability to pray collectively five times daily, with the exception of one prayer a week on Friday.  Instead, prisoners must pray alone in their cells. Lindh adheres to a school of Islam that states an adherent must pray “in congregation, if at all possible.”

Lindh is currently held in the prison’s Communications Management Unit. The CMU is a separate facility established to house inmates whose communications the government determines must be monitored more closely for the protection of the public. However, during daytime hours prisoners may move uninhibited about the CMU, and are free to engage in conversation or leisure activities with other CMU inmates.

Lindh is bringing suit in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Indiana under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RFRA is a 1993 federal law preventing the federal government from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion. However, RFRA does allow the government to interfere in the exercise of religion if it is both fulfilling a compelling government interest and acting in the least restrictive manner possible.

Lindh argues in his brief that the prison’s policy of allowing solitary prayer in each prisoner’s cell is inadequate. He further cites other shortfalls of individual prayer, such as the impossibility of lining up in orderly rows behind an imam.

Lindh also questions why the prison allows a single Friday group prayer but subsequently disallows the practice on all other occasions. In addition, he criticizes the prison for not allowing group prayer while at the same time permitting the inmates to “talk, snack, play board games, play cards, watch television, exercise, and play sports.” During the day inmates have access to lounge areas with televisions, multi-purpose rooms with laundry equipment, and indoor and outdoor exercise areas.

He argues that if the prison were truly attempting to halt the dissemination of radical ideas, it should not allow these opportunities to socialize.

Lindh cites case law stating that under RFRA the prison “must do more than merely assert a security concern” in justifying the prohibition of group prayer as a compelling government interest. He maintains that the prison should have considered alternatives to the prayer ban that would have been less restrictive on the inmates’ ability to pray in a group.

The prison counters in its brief that Lindh experienced no substantial burden to his religious exercise because communal prayer is not required under the Islamic teachings followed by Lindh. While group prayer is preferred, it is not obligatory, and specific teachings provide exceptions for incarcerated Muslims not able to pray communally.

Justifying a compelling government interest, the prison points to Lindh’s disciplinary infractions. It cites six incidents in the CMU, including a radical, all-Arabic sermon delivered by Lindh as recently as February 2012, to show that religious activities led by Muslim inmates are being used as a vehicle for radicalization and violence. The brief contends these efforts are consistent with tactics outlined in a seized al-Qaida handbook.

The prison also believes that it acted in what was the most practical manner possible. Muslims are taught to pray five times a day, and even if the prison accommodated three daily prayers for the Muslim prisoners, it would have to provide the same amount of group worship time for the other four faith groups represented in the CMU due to equal protections concerns.

This policy would require the CMU to provide each of the five faith groups with 21 congregate worship activities per week, with a total of 105 per week.

Douglas Laycock, professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and one of the nation’s leading scholars on religious liberty, offered a mixed assessment of both parties’ positions to The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“I don’t know what the government can show here about its reasons for not allowing group prayer,” he explained.  “If the concern is about spreading radical Islamic ideology … the prayer service could be monitored as well.”

He was not conclusive, however, stating, “This is a special unit that appears to claim special security needs, and the court may be reluctant to interfere.”

“[M]any things about this case will tend to make the judge cautious — the specter of terrorism, the apparently greater-than-maximum-security status of the unit, and perhaps a sense that the federal defendants are more professional and more credible than the defendants in some of the state cases.”

The trial, the culmination of over three years of motions and court orders, is ongoing.

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