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On The Front Lines

TRI Warns Jail Officials: The First Amendment Requires the Government to Treat All Religious Beliefs Equally


Amicus brief: Emad v. Dodge County

CHICAGO, IL — Pointing out that the First Amendment requires the government to treat all religious beliefs equally, The Rutherford Institute is calling out a Wisconsin jail for leaving a Muslim prisoner no choice but to pray next to the toilet in his cell while jail officers allowed Christian inmates to gather for Bible studies and prayer in a communal area. A district court found that the government failed to demonstrate a legitimate interest for refusing to allow the Muslim inmate to pray in a common area outside of his cell. Nevertheless, the court dismissed the prisoner’s lawsuit on the grounds that the jail officials are protected by qualified immunity.

In filing an amicus brief in Emad v. Dodge County, Rutherford Institute attorneys asked the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to ensure that the government does not use qualified immunity as a means by which to violate the First Amendment rights of prisoners.

“The First Amendment not only affirms the right to religious freedom for people of all faiths, but it also requires that the government treat all faiths equally and not favoring or disfavoring one over the other,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “This is the slippery slope that affects us all, whether you’re talking about religious freedom, free speech or privacy: if the government is allowed to deny freedom to one segment of the citizenry, it will eventually extend that tyranny to the rest of us.”

Although the Dodge County Detention Facility in Wisconsin has a policy prohibiting “personal worship” in the dayroom common areas, jail officers permitted Christian detainees to participate in Bible study and communal prayer in the dayroom. Mohamed Salah Mohamed A Emad, a practicing Muslim, was a civil detainee at the jail for fourteen months. As part of Emad’s religious practice, he was to pray at five prescribed times each day, a practice known as salah. Emad believes that such prayers must be done in a clean and pure environment; thus, prayer in a room with a toilet is prohibited and considered unclean. Additionally, Emad believes he is required by Islam to attend a weekly sermon and congregational prayer, known as Jumu’ah, with two or more people on Fridays. Emad’s requests to pray outside of his cell in an area without a toilet were denied by jail officials, and the jail did not offer Jumu’ah services and denied Emad’s request to allow him to conduct Jumu’ah with other Muslim detainees. Emad sued the jail for substantially burdening his First Amendment right to the free exercise of his religion. While the trial court found that the jail did not have a sufficient justification for refusing to allow Emad to pray in other areas outside his cell, which caused a substantial burden on his religious practice, the trial court still dismissed the case against the jail officials whom the court considered to be protected by qualified immunity. Emad appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

In its amicus brief supporting Emad’s case, The Rutherford Institute argues that where there is a clear constitutional violation and plenty of time for government officials to consider their course of action, officials should not be allowed to feign ignorance or use qualified immunity to shield them from liability. Institute attorneys also warn that the broken doctrine of qualified immunity creates unending cycles which shield government officials who commit constitutional violations.

Paul R. Steadman, Emma Cone Roddy, and Sean O’Neal of DLA Piper LLP helped advance the arguments in the brief.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.


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