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Muslims Sue Arkansas Prisons Over Failure to Offer Prayer Services

The lawsuit follows a Supreme Court decision allowing Alabama to deny a Muslim-American man's request to have an imam present at his execution.

A number of recent lawsuits allege failures by prisons to protect the religious freedom of Muslim inmates.

On the heels of a series of lawsuits concerning religious practice in the United States' criminal justice system, Muslim-American rights advocates are suing Arkansas prisons for allegedly refusing to offer religious services for Muslim inmates. The lawsuit, filed in federal court on Friday, claims that the Arkansas Department of Corrections requires Muslim-American inmates to attend combined religious services with members of religious groups with practices diverging significantly from their faith.

"Unsurprisingly, no other faith groups, including a variety of Christian denominations, are forced to choose between attending religious services led by other faith groups, or to forego religious obligations to worship altogether," the lawsuit states. "In fact, many Christian denominations are permitted by Defendants to hold and attend their own separate religious services."

Muslim inmates in Arkansas who wish to practice are allegedly made to attend a joint service with members of two other religious groups that espouse beliefs that fall outside of mainstream Sunni Islam. The first group is the Nation of Islam, an African-American religious and political movement that espouses several beliefs—including, recently, the adoption of the Church of Scientology's practice of Dianetics. The other group included in the combined service is the Five-Percent Nation, a religious movement that emerged as an offshoot of the Nation of Islam.

"Requiring Muslims to attend religious services led by adherents of the [Nation of Islam] or [Five-Percent Nation] is akin to requiring Christians to attend religious services led by a Jewish rabbi, or Jews to attend religious services led by a Christian priest," the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit also alleges that the prison system has prevented the three plaintiffs on the case from wearing the kufi, a Muslim cap similar to the Jewish kippah skullcap, mandated in Islam's Sunnah, the traditional practices of the faith.

"We will be working with the Arkansas Attorney General to present a vigorous defense to this lawsuit, which reflects our current policies," writes Solomon Graves, public information officer and legislative liaison at the Arkansas Department of Correction. "The department has no further comment on this lawsuit."

The new suit is not the first levied against the Arkansas Department of Correction, which has faced legal action over its treatment of Muslim-American inmates before. In 2015, inmate Gregory Houston Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad—one of the plaintiffs on the new suit—challenged the department for refusing to allow him to grow a beard, in accordance with Sunnah. The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 in favor of Muhammad's right to grow a beard.

The legal challenge over Arkansas religious allowances for Muslim-American inmates comes amid overarching concerns about the American correctional systems' treatment of Muslim-American inmates. "The rights of Muslim inmates are certainly under assault," says Gadeir Abbas, a senior litigation attorney at CAIR and one of the attorneys representing the Arkansas plaintiffs. Abbas notes that there are numerous facilities in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed in 2000, which states, "No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution" such as a prison or jail.

The law "goes well beyond the constitution to place an affirmative obligation on prisons and jails to provide their inmates with opportunities to practice their faith," Abbas says.

The Arkansas case follows similar litigation in the defense of Muslim-American inmates. In May, a judge ordered Alaska prisons to stop feeding Muslim inmates pork during the holy month of Ramadan. In November of last year, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group, filed a complaint on behalf of Muslim-American inmates at Virginia's Riverside Regional Jail, which allegedly operated a separate facility for Christian inmates and gave those inmates certain privileges over others. The jail reportedly starved Muslim inmates during the holy month of Ramadan and prohibited various other religious practices.

And in early February, the Supreme Court ruled against Muslim-American Alabama death row inmate Dominique Ray's request to have an imam present at his execution, on the grounds that he had made the petition too close to his execution date. The decision overturned a circuit court ruling that Alabama's decision to bar an imam from the death chamber had contravened the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom.

Justice Elena Kagan observed the injustice of the ruling in her dissenting opinion: "The Alabama prison where Dominique Ray will be executed tonight, regularly allows a Christian chaplain to be present in the execution chamber. But Ray is Muslim," she wrote.

CAIR's Abbas affirms that, although there have been a rash of cases of discriminatory treatment of Muslim inmates in recent years, the vast majority of U.S. correctional facilities do make the necessary arrangements for their inmates, in keeping with the law. "U.S. prisons are among the very worst in the world at a lot of things, but there are thousands of prisons across the country that provide Muslim inmates the ability to observe the fast during Ramadan, to pray in congregation on Fridays, and adhere to an Islamic diet. A lot of these examples from litigation—the reason they're so objectionable is they are outside the norm of what many prisons are able to do, which is a good thing," he says.

It remains to be seen whether the Arkansas case will go before a Supreme Court that has been significantly reshaped by the Trump administration in the years since it ruled in favor of Muslim Arkansas inmates in the facial-hair suit.

Abbas underlined the need for litigation and activism to ensure that rule of law prevails for Muslim inmates and other Americans.

"The courts alone will not provide adequate protections to the Muslim community," he says, "but lawsuits as well as more activism from the Muslim community and its allies should ensure that the Muslim community does not encounter discrimination, whatever the circumstances may be—whether you are a Muslim business owner placed on the no-fly list or a Muslim inmate on Death Row."