Religious Freedom Victory: Federal Court Sides with Muslim Incarcerated at Virginia Prison

Legal Argument for Restricting Prayer at Red Onion State Prison Rejected by Higher Court

WASHINGTON, DC — Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected a ruling by a lower court that allowed a Virginia state prison to prevent Muslim prisoner Alfonza Greenhill from participating in a group prayer session via closed-circuit television. Mr. Greenhill, represented by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, appealed the lower court’s decision last year. In January, Muslim Advocates filed an amicus brief in support of Mr. Greenhill, which was joined by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and Interfaith Alliance.

Mr. Greenhill, an observant Muslim incarcerated at Red Onion State Prison in western Virginia, was placed in a disciplinary program that restricted his ability to speak to other prisoners or access certain benefits. Though the restrictions were supposedly there to encourage prisoners like Mr. Greenhill to improve their behavior, the prison not only restricted entertainment and socializing, it refused to permit Mr. Greenhill to attend the weekly Muslim religious service Jum’ah—even by watching it on a closed-circuit television that prison officials admitted was readily available. Further, because Mr. Greenhill’s religion requires him to grow a beard in violation of the prison’s restrictions on facial hair, he could not ever progress in the program enough for the prison to permit him to attend Jum’ah. Mr. Greenhill brought a lawsuit challenging the prison’s actions in court, claiming that federal law required the prison to accommodate his religious practices even while he was in a disciplinary program. When a federal trial court rejected Mr. Greenhill’s claims, he appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

“The free exercise of religion is a right, not a bargaining chip for prisons to offer as an incentive for good behavior,” said Muslim Advocates Staff Attorney Matt Callahan. “The Fourth Circuit’s ruling makes clear that courts and prison officials need to respect the high bar that federal law sets for restrictions of religious practice. Not only does the court’s opinion give Mr. Greenhill another chance to vindicate his claims in court, it provides an important precedent for other people of all faiths who are fighting for their religious freedom.”

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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.