Lawyers For Gitmo Detainees Using Hobby Lobby To Argue For Expanded Religious Freedoms
Political irony, perhaps, but probably less than meets the eye.
Lawyers for the prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay are using the Court’s recent decision in the Hobby Lobby case in an effort to expand their client’s religious expression rights while in custody:
Lawyers for two Guantanamo Bay detainees have filed motions asking a U.S. court to block officials from preventing the inmates from taking part in communal prayers during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The lawyers argue that – in light of the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision – the detainees’ rights are protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
The motions were filed this week with the Washington D.C. district court on behalf of Emad Hassan of Yemen and Ahmed Rabbani of Pakistan. U.K.-based human rights group Reprieve said both men asked for the intervention after military officials at the prison “prevented them from praying communally during Ramadan.”
During Ramadan, a month of prayer and reflection that began last weekend, Muslims are required to fast every day from sunrise to sunset. But what is at issue in this case is the ability to perform extra prayers, called tarawih, “in which [Muslims] recite one-thirtieth of the Quran in consecutive segments throughout the month.”
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, told Al Jazeera on Friday that the “Defense Department is aware of the filing,” and that the “government will respond through the legal system.”
The detainees’ lawyers said courts have previously concluded that Guantanamo detainees do not have “religious free exercise rights” because they are not “persons within the scope of the RFRA.”
But the detainees’ lawyers say the Hobby Lobby decision changes that.
“Hobby Lobby makes clear that all persons – human and corporate, citizen and foreigner, resident and alien – enjoy the special religious free exercise protections of the RFRA,” the lawyers argued in court papers.
In its controversial Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that the contraception insurance coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act – also known as Obamacare – violated the rights of “closely held for-profit corporations,” if a company’s owners object to birth control on religious grounds. The court, which decided the case 5-4, said that the mandate “substantially burdens” the corporation’s exercise of religion in violation of RFRA.
Lawyers for the detainees also contend that both Hassan and Rabbani are being prevented from participating in communal prayers because they are on hunger strike.
“Why are the authorities at Guantanamo Bay seeking to punish detainees for hunger striking by curtailing their right to pray? If, under our law, Hobby Lobby is a ‘person’ with a right to religious freedom, surely Gitmo detainees are people too,” said Cori Crider, an attorney for the detainees and a director at Reprieve.
The Defense Department did not directly address whether the men were being punished for their hunger strike, but responded more broadly.
“We are committed to religious freedoms and practices for the detainees, keeping in mind the overall goal of security and safety for detainees and staff,” Caggins said.
Since the filings in these cases are generally not made public, it’s hard to say just how strong a legal argument the prisoner’s attorneys have here. In general, the issue of religious accommodations for people in custody has been one that frequently finds itself before the courts, even though such cases rarely make their way to the Supreme Court. These “prisoner free exercise” cases as they are typically require courts to balance the Constitutional rights of the prisoner with the interests of prison authorities to maintain order and other similar goals. The same applies in the situation at Gitmo even though its a military prison. In fact, this isn’t the first time that there have been reports of litigation related to the ability of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to practice their faith and, while the results of those actions are sealed, it seems safe to assume that the applications are judged by generally the same legal standards as the claims filed by prisoners in civilian prisons.
Given all of that, I am not at all sure that the Hobby Lobby decision really changes much of anything when it comes to the issues surrounding the ability of prisoners to freely exercise their faith. As I noted in my post about the decision, in the case the Supreme Court applied a balancing test to determine if the burden being placed on the religious rights of person making the claim is outweighed by a compelling government interest that is being accomplished by the least restrictive means possible. In Hobby Lobby, the Court determined that there were means available to achieve the goal of greater availability of contraceptives that were less of an intrusion on religious liberty than the mandate that the owners of Hobby Lobby complained about. In this case, the balancing test would be between whatever expanded religious practices the prisoners in question are seeking and the needs of prison authorities to maintain order and discipline. Quite obviously, in this case the government has a stronger argument than they did in Hobby Lobby.
No doubt, many on the political left will get a chuckle out of the idea that a decision conservatives have praised is being utilized in this matter, and indeed some are. However, it’s worth nothing that this is what happens with Court precedent, it get’s used in future arguments in future cases. Whether that argument will be ultimately persuasive is an entirely different question.