Ill. inmate can pursue religious-liberty lawsuit over pat-down

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

An Illinois prison inmate’s claim that officials violated his religious-liberty rights by allowing a female staff member to search him has survived initial review by a federal judge. However, the judge rejected his sexual-harassment claim, saying that such a claim did not present a First Amendment issue.

Yaphet K. Jamal, incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institute in Pekin, Ill., contended that in June 2009, Religious Services Coordinator Teri Garrett called him over for a pat-down search after a noon meal. Jamal alleges that Garrett, as the religious-services official, knew that his Muslim beliefs prohibited physical contact with a member of the opposite sex other than a parent or spouse. Jamal also alleged that Garrett denied his request to have the pat-down conducted by a male prison official.

Jamal further alleged that Garrett threatened him with further disciplinary action if he refused to acquiesce to the search.

In his Jan. 22 opinion, Jamal v. Smith, U.S. District Judge Harold A. Baker wrote that Jamal “has adequately alleged a violation of his First Amendment rights.” Federal law requires judges to screen inmates’ claims to determine if they are legally sufficient to continue.

Baker noted that Jamal’s free-exercise claim should be evaluated under the standard identified by the U.S. Supreme Court in Turner v. Safley (1987) and O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz (1987). In these cases, the Court held that prisoner free-speech and free exercise of religion claims are evaluated under a reasonableness inquiry that requires that the prison regulation, policy or action be “reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns” such as rehabilitation or safety.

Baker wrote that federal courts had reached different outcomes over whether inmates’ First Amendment rights were violated by cross-gender pat-downs by guards. The judge did not express an opinion on the validity of the claim, only that Jamal had adequately alleged the claim.

Baker dismissed Jamal’s separate claim for sexual harassment, writing that a “sexual harassment claim would fall under the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, not the First Amendment.” The judge cited numerous cases for the principle that isolated incidents of harassment are not enough to constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

The judge ordered the prison officials to respond to Jamal’s First Amendment religious-liberty claim and referred further matters in the case to a federal magistrate.

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