American Taliban's religious freedom argument could extend to prisons across U.S.

The legal battle between the federal government and “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh over religious freedoms could have broader implications for inmates in federal, state and local prisons across the country.

The 31-year-old Lindh testified Monday on the first day of the trial in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis. He and other Muslim inmates are suing the Federal Bureau of Prisons, demanding that they be allowed to conduct group prayer. Prison officials say that is a security risk.

Lindh is serving a 20-year sentence in the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute for aiding the Taliban. He originally was charged with conspiring to kill Americans and support terrorists. However, those charges were dropped in a plea agreement. Lindh will be eligible for release in 2019.

He said the prison’s prohibition on group prayer forces him to sin because Islam requires him to pray five times a day and with other Muslims, if possible.

The 24 Muslim inmates at the facility, of 43 total inmates, are allowed to pray together one hour each week during Ramadan, which recently ended.

Lindh said that is not enough and that the security concerns are baseless. He vowed to continue to fight for increased religious freedom.

“It’s different when you’re being prevented from praying by circumstances, as opposed to being prevented by human beings,” Lindh testified. “Then you have the responsibility to change that prohibition to permission as much as you’re able to. That’s the course I’m pursuing.”

The government’s position is that security is threatened when the Muslims congregate to pray, contending in court documents that Lindh delivered a radical sermon to other Muslim prisoners in February. The sermon was given in Arabic, which is prohibited by the Bureau of Prisons. The system requires that inmates speak in English so guards can understand them, except for ritual prayers.

Tim Horty, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said Monday the office would not comment about the court proceedings.

Members of other faiths also are limited in when and how they can gather at the prison.

Whatever the outcome of the trial, which could last much of the week, it is likely to be appealed by the losing side, said Fran Watson, clinical professor of law at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

The case then would go to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

The appeals court’s ruling could be crafted narrowly or more broadly, but the case will have implications for prisoners throughout the country, not just in the federal system, Watson said.

At issue in the Lindh case is federal policy, and state courts also are bound by federal court rulings, she said. State and local courts can have rules that broaden rights, but they cannot afford prisoners fewer rights than federal inmates.

So if the case ends in a ruling that the Muslim prisoners in Lindh’s unit can gather to pray, that likely would apply to Muslim inmates elsewhere as well as to inmates of other faiths.

The question is one of balancing rights.

“When you are in prison, you don’t have full freedom. That’s clear,” Watson said. But restrictions of rights, such as religious practices, must be reasonable, she said. And even if the prison were to argue that Lindh posed a threat with a radical sermon, that wouldn't necessarily justify prohibiting all Muslim inmates from praying together, she said.

“That’s not a rational reason for passing a policy. A policy can’t be tied to an individual,” Watson said.

According to recent estimates, 17 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. prison population is Muslim, including converts to the religion. Many of the converts adopt Islam after they are incarcerated.

The case originally was filed by inmates in 2009, with Lindh joining a year later. The original plaintiffs have been released or transferred or dropped the case.

Kenneth Falk, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and Lindh’s attorney, said the Terre Haute prison allows inmates to gather to watch television and to play cards and basketball, apparently without concerns about security.

Brian Carr, one of the original plaintiffs who has been transferred to another prison, testified Monday that Muslims at Terre Haute used to regularly pray in groups and that prison staff knew about it.

He said that before, people prayed in groups of four or five in the dining room and recreational area.

“Staff knew about that. They’ve physically seen us,” said Carr, who is serving a 20-year sentence for bank robbery. “It was not done in secret.”

Monday’s courtroom appearance was a rare one for Lindh, who has been held at the Terre Haute prison since 2007.

A cluster of openly armed U.S. marshals escorted the shackled Lindh into the federal courtroom in Downtown Indianapolis.

The bushy-bearded Lindh, who wore an olive green prison uniform and a white prayer cap, smiled at his mother, who sat in the third row and offered a strained smile back at him. Four of the marshals stood a few feet away while Lindh sat at a table with his attorneys from the ACLU of Indiana.

He was soft-spoken throughout most of his testimony but became agitated when deputy U.S. Attorney William McCoskey asked him why he had not stood along with everyone else when Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson entered the courtroom.

“It’s against my religion,” Lindh said. “This procedure of standing up for people is unacceptable.”

He also said he didn’t acknowledge the government’s authority to restrict his religious practices.

“I don’t recognize any law but the Sharia of Islam,” Lindh said in response to questioning by government attorneys. “There is no compromise.”

The trial resumes at 1 p.m. today.