ACLU Sues Prison Over Muslim Prayer Limits

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Two Muslim inmates held in a special unit at the federal prison in Terre Haute say they aren’t allowed to pray in groups as often as their religion commands and have asked a federal judge to ease worship limits imposed by the Bureau of Prisons.

The prison in western Indiana houses several high-security inmates, including American-born Taliban soldierJohn Walker Lindh, who is serving a 20-year sentence for aiding Afghanistan’s now-defunct Taliban government.

The June 16 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana challenges limits on Islamic worship in the prison’s restrictive Communications Management Unit, where about 30 of the 40 inmates are Muslim.

Muslims are required to pray five times a day, but the lawsuit, filed on behalf of inmates Enaam Arnaout and Randall T. Royer, says inmates in the CMU are allowed to pray as a group just one hour a week. The ACLU claims that violates a federal law barring the government from restricting religious activities without showing a compelling need.

The lawsuit echoes a 2007 complaint from convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid that he was denied access to group prayer at the Supermax federal prison in Florence, Colo.

The Indiana lawsuit is one of two the ACLU has filed in the past week concerning conditions in the CMU. Its other lawsuit claimed the unit was created in secrecy and keeps its mostly Muslim inmates in virtual isolation.

Justice Department spokesman said last week that the government followed federal rules in creating the special unit in November 2006. Designed to house prisoners who require additional security, the unit closely monitors inmates’ outside contacts.

Bureau of Prisons officials declined Tuesday comment on the prayer lawsuit.

Ken Falk, legal director of the ACLU of Indiana, questioned policies allowing prisoners out of their cells to watch television, play cards or engage in other group activities but limiting group worship to one hour on Fridays.

“That means four people can sit around the table playing cards or talking about the basketball game but they can’t worship,” Falk said.

Lindh’s attorney George Harris confirmed Tuesday that Lindh, a convert to Islam, is held in the CMU. He declined to comment on the lawsuit or say whether Lindh has had problems practicing his religion at the prison.

The lawsuit asks the Bureau of Prisons to reinstate daily prayers that were held in a multipurpose room for several months after the CMU opened.

Louay Safi, director of leadership development with the Plainfield-based Islamic Society of North America, said Muslims try to pray in groups whenever possible.

“Muhammad said there is a much greater reward for people who pray in congregation than those who pray individually,” he said.

Arnaout, 46, a Syrian-born U.S. citizen, is serving a 10-year sentence for racketeering after admitting in 2003 that he defrauded donors to his Benevolence International Foundation by diverting some of the money to Islamic military groups in Bosnia and Chechnya.

Royer, 36, a former spokesman for the Muslim American Society, is serving 20 years for his participation in what prosecutors called a “Virginia jihad network.” The group used paintball games in 2000 and 2001 as military training in preparation for holy war against nations deemed hostile to Islam, prosecutors say.

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