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US jail ends Christian only programme after Muslim inmates sue

27th Dec 2019

Harun Nasrullah

A jail in Virginia, the United States, was forced to terminate its Christian programme last month following a lawsuit by four Muslim inmates that alleged the programme provided favourable treatment to Christians inmates.

Riverside Regional Jail ended the Christian Life Learning aka the “God Pod” Programme on the advice of counsel after a lawsuit was filed last year at the United States District Court of Virginia Alexandria Division.

Represented by the Council on American-Islamic Relations Muslim inmates Mitchell Young, Desmond Horton, Dominic Robertson and Chris Mayo, the Council on American-Islamic Relations alleged that those who promise to live in accordance with the Bible get special treatment, such as getting their cell and use of a television and microwave, which they argued violated the American Constitution by favouring one religion over others.

Two of the plaintiffs were allegedly tested on the ‘sufficiency of their beliefs in Islam’ before being told whether they could have the Holy Month menu. Young passed and Robertson failed.

Lena Masri, the Council on American-Islamic Relations National Litigation Director, General Counsel and Acting Civil Rights Director, said inmates told the group’s attorneys that about 30 to 40 inmates have been moved into the pod since it was established earlier in 2018.

Masri said a flier posted in the jail described the programme as one conducted by chaplains with the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry. The same group states on its website that it has chaplains providing Bible-based programmes in 22 states.

The lawsuit stated the action was not a ‘result of ignorance or ineptitude but a part of the Defendants deliberate plan’ to exclude Muslims.

Using their First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, the plaintiffs refer to how citizens should be free to practise their religion in a group, should not be placed under cruel or unusual punishment, and should not deny a person the equal protection of the law. Masri said other Muslim inmates at the jail also complained that they have not had access to regular Islamic classes.

Judge Anthony J Trenga heard arguments on September 20 on whether the programme violated constitutional prohibitions against the establishment of religion. Jail officials acknowledged the programme was built on biblical principles but said it was open to all faiths.

Deborah Kane, a lawyer for the chaplain who was in charge of the programme, said that the Bible is a religious text accorded respect in Judaism and Islam, so it’s wrong to assume a Bible-based curriculum favours Christians. “Just because it’s biblical based, don’t mean it leads to this entanglement of religion,” she argued.

However, the Council on American-Islamic Relations lawyer Gadeir Abbas said the evidence shows only Christians were hand-picked to live in the God Pod, despite the assertions in court that the programme was open to all. He said the evidence is clear that the only people who could avail themselves of the programme and its amenities “were those willing to commit themselves to a lifetime of living in accordance with the Bible.”

“Riverside Regional Jail delegated all of its chaplain functions to a proselytising Christian organisation,” Abbas said.

The lawsuit also faulted the jail for failing to provide timely meals to Muslim inmates fasting during Ramadan.

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