On December 18, 2014, the civil rights attorneys at Bolek Besser Glesius LLC filed a freedom of religion lawsuit on behalf of a young Muslim woman from Cleveland who was forced to attend Christian prayer services against her will by the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department while incarcerated at the Cuyahoga County Jail.
Filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio against Cuyahoga County, the Cuyahoga County Sheriff, and one of the offending corrections officers, the case has garnered national attention. The case is titled Majeed v. Cuyahoga County, et al., Case No. 1:14-cv-02778.
The Factual Background
On April 11, 2014, our client began serving a sixty-day sentence at the Cuyahoga County Jail, where she was housed in a unit for low-level offenders, called the trustee pod. There are no locks—or even doors—on the inmate rooms in the trustee pod, and the inmates are generally permitted to travel throughout the common areas of the pod.
Shortly after her arrival at the trustee pod, the corrections officer on duty instructed our client that she would be required to attend weekly Christian prayer services every Friday afternoon. Our client objected that because she is Muslim, participating in Christian services is contrary to her religious faith. In response, the corrections officer threatened her with solitary confinement if she refused. As a result, for the duration of her incarceration, the Sheriff’s Department forced our client to attend weekly Christian prayer services against her will, and contrary to her religious beliefs.
Although our client repeatedly complained to both the corrections officer and the supervising corporal that she was being forced to attend religious services against her will, she was forced to go anyway. When she refused to actively participate in the services she was compelled to attend, another corrections officer openly chastised and mocked her. Other inmates in the trustee pod witnessed the conduct alleged in the Complaint.
Background of the Legal Claims
The lawsuit we have filed is for the deprivation of our client’s constitutional and statutory right to freedom of religion.
The first two claims are brought under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which begins with the well-known axiom: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” Within this phrase are two distinct limits on the government’s power, known as the “establishment clause” and the “free exercise clause.” The lawsuit brings claims under both clauses.
Through many years of jurisprudence interpreting the First Amendment’s religion clauses, a fundamental principle has remained ironclad: government cannot tell people what God to pray to, or whether to pray at all. As the United States Supreme Court held in 1947:
The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government . . . can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance.
Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing, 330 U.S. 1, 15–16 (1947) (emphasis added). This core principle has been consistently emphasized and reaffirmed by our courts. In a famous 1992 case called Lee v. Weisman, the Supreme Court held unequivocally: “It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise. . . .” 505 U.S. 577, 587 (emphasis added).
The Supreme Court has made clear that even people in prison retain this basic right to freedom of religion. “Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” Turner v. Safley, 482 U. S. 78, 84 (1987). While a prisoner’s religious rights are certainly subject to some limitations, being forced to support or participate in a religious practice against their will is not one of them. In fact, federal courts have repeatedly held that people subject to the penal system cannot be compelled to engage in religious practices in order to avoid punishment or to obtain parole. See, e.g., Inouye v. Kemna, 504 F.3d 705 (9th Cir. 2007); Warner v. Orange County Dep’t of Probation, 115 F.3d 1068 (2nd Cir. 1997); Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472 (7th Cir. 1996). In one such case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals explained: “For the government to coerce someone to participate in religious activities strikes at the core of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. . . .” Inouye, 504 F.3d at 712. That remains true even for someone convicted of a crime.
Although most of the cases cited above arise under the Establishment Clause rather than the Free Exercise clause, there is some overlap of the relevant law in light of the facts of this case. For that reason, for the sake of simplicity, and because this is intended as an overview rather than a legal brief, the two separate First Amendment claims are addressed together here.
In addition to the First Amendment claims, the lawsuit also contains two other claims. One is a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1, or “RLUIPA.” Passed by Congress in 2000, RLUIPA generally prohibits government from imposing a substantial burden on the religious exercise of any person confined to a correctional institution. The other is a claim under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits government officials from engaging in discrimination on the basis of religion, among other things.
After we filed the case, it quickly garnered both local and national attention. First reported on by Newsnet5 in Cleveland and the Northeast Ohio Media Group, the case was soon picked up by news outlets across the nation. The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, ABC News, Fox News, Gawker and many others have all covered the story. It has even been covered internationally, in the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail.
The Importance of This Case
The right to freedom of religion is one upon which our nation was founded and is central to who we are as a people. In this country, government officials are simply not permitted to dictate what religious beliefs people will have, or choose not to have. Put differently, as citizens, we are entitled to choose our own religion; the government cannot choose it for us.
The Cleveland attorneys at Bolek Besser Glesius LLC are very proud to be involved in this important First Amendment case and to stand up to defend our nation’s founding promise of religious freedom for all.