Muslim Advocates Legal Victory: All Federal Prisons Get New Group Prayer Guidance

Nationwide Guidance Secured After Lawsuit Challenging Improper Group Prayer Limits at Federal Prison in Kentucky  

WASHINGTON, DC — In response to a lawsuit by Muslim Advocates and prisoner William Doyle challenging a policy restricting group prayer, United States Penitentiary McCreary in Kentucky has withdrawn the policy and the Federal Bureau of Prisons has changed its national guidance to recommend accommodation of group prayer opportunities for Muslim prisoners. 

As documented in the Muslim Advocates report Fulfilling the Promise of Free Exercise for All: Muslim Prisoner Accommodation in State Prisons, state prisons commonly treat Muslim inmates differently from prisoners of other faiths, denying them the right to pray in groups, access to religiously appropriate meals (meals with no pork or with halal meat), to grow beards and other exercises of their faith that are protected by the U.S. Constitution. As the experience of Mr. Doyle demonstrates, Muslim inmates in federal prisons face similar challenges.

The new Federal Bureau of Prisons guidance is groundbreaking because, for the first time, the federal government is acknowledging the need to change its rules and recommend that daily group prayer be accommodated for Muslim prisoners.  

“This new group prayer guidance sends a clear signal to all prisons that the right to pray should not be denied, regardless of faith,” said Matt Callahan, staff attorney for Muslim Advocates. “Unfortunately, we believe many of the 142 federal prisons are likely ignoring their obligation to ensure the right to pray at their facilities. What happened at McCreary is an insult to religious freedom and we call on all prisons—particularly federal prisons—to stop standing in the way of the right to pray and to require all federal facilities to adopt policies implementing the new guidance immediately and without delay.”

The new guidance, outlined in the agency’s Religious Beliefs and Practices Manual and sent to all federal prisons:

  • Removes previous guidance recommending that group prayer should be limited to groups of no more than three prisoners;
  • States that prisoner requests for group prayer should be treated the same way requests for other group activities are treated; and
  • Recommends that staffers accommodate all group prayer requests and only deny them when the security or good order of a facility would be jeopardized.

Muslim Advocates is also calling on Americans to contact the Federal Bureau of Prisons and ask the agency to ensure that the new guidance is enforced so that incarcerated people of all faiths can practice their religion.

William Doyle, who is represented by Muslim Advocates, is an observant Muslim incarcerated at United States Penitentiary McCreary in Kentucky. Though his faith requires him to pray multiple times a day with all other Muslims who are present at prayer time, McCreary staff prevented him from doing so by enforcing a policy restricting group prayers to a maximum of three people. The policy was adopted to implement guidance by the Bureau of Prisons that recommended facilities restrict prayer to groups of two or three. While McCreary claimed the restriction on group prayer was necessary for security, the facility regularly allowed prisoners to congregate in significantly larger groups for other activities like sports or card games, as well as allowing prisoners of non-Muslim faiths to violate the policy by praying in groups larger than three. 

In 2018, Mr. Doyle sued the facility but a district court dismissed his claim. Earlier this year, Muslim Advocates filed an appeal asking a higher court to reverse the ruling. In response, the Federal Bureau of Prisons changed its group prayer guidance for all federal prisons and McCreary withdrew its policy restricting group prayer. 

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Muslim Advocates is a national civil rights organization working in the courts, in the halls of power and in communities to halt bigotry in its tracks. We ensure that American Muslims have a seat at the table with expert representation so that all Americans may live free from hate and discrimination.