Federal magistrate recommends upholding jail’s ban on head coverings

Monday, November 21, 2011

Jail officials in Sumner County, Tenn., did not violate the First Amendment rights of a former inmate when they prohibited him from wearing a kufi, or Islamic head covering, a federal magistrate judge has recommended.

Horatio D. Burford contended that during his time in the Sumner County jail, officials denied him the right to wear the kufi, citing a general ban on head coverings. Officials claimed that the ban furthered the jail’s interest in security by eliminating a place to hide contraband and removing an opportunity for inmates to show their gang affiliations.

Burford, who became a Muslim while confined in prison in 2009, said the policy was not reasonable and that it infringed on his constitutional rights. He also claimed that officials violated his rights when they prohibited him from praying with other Islamic inmates. Prison officials said Burford could meet with  Islamic inmates in the day room of his housing area.

Burford also challenged a third policy, which required inmates to return to their cells during activities by volunteer groups in the day room. He said it was unfair to have to return to his cell when a Seventh Day Adventist group was holding a religious service.

Jail officials did allow Burford to have a Quran and other religious literature.

On Nov. 18, U.S. Magistrate Judge Juliet Griffin recommended in Burford v. Troutt to U.S. District Judge William J. Haynes Jr. that Burford’s lawsuit be dismissed. In federal court, it is common practice for many cases to go first before a federal magistrate, who evaluates the case and issues a recommendation to the federal district judge.

Griffin determined that prison officials identified legitimate safety concerns in prohibiting Burford from wearing a kufi.

“The prohibition on head coverings at the Jail is rationally related to the legitimate penological interests of preventing contraband at the Jail and of preventing security risks that might arise because of gang affiliation issues caused by the color of head coverings,” she wrote.

Burford had contended that the policy was not rational and was discriminatory because Christian inmates were allowed to wear crosses. Griffin said that was “irrelevant” because crosses are not head coverings.

Griffin also rejected the claim that restricting inmates from going to other housing pods and requiring inmates to return to their cells during volunteer activities if they were not participating did not violate Burford’s rights.  She said the policies restricting inmate movement among housing areas and during volunteer activities also were reasonably related to security and safety.

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