Bloomberg Law
Jan. 17, 2023, 5:56 PM

Muslim Inmate Wins Another Shot at Challenge to Sunday Services

Mike Leonard
Mike Leonard
Legal Reporter

A Virginia jail must defend its practice of broadcasting Christian services on every TV screen each Sunday under a new legal test laid out by the US Supreme Court, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit undid part of a ruling against David Nighthorse Firewalker-Fields, a Muslim former inmate at the Middle River Regional Jail who claims the weekly broadcasts unconstitutionally favored Christianity. Firewalker-Fields spent three months at the jail.

Judge Julius N. Richardson, writing for the court, cited the allegation that inmates had no way of avoiding the broadcasts in every common area other than retreating to their cells, which could be seen as an ultimatum: “Be Christian or be penalized.”

The lawsuit offered “an array of historical sources” to back up its claim that the broadcasts throughout the jail violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which generally bans the government from playing favorites with religion, Richardson said.

That evidence is in line with the high court’s directive, in last year’s Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, that courts considering establishment clause claims must look to “historical practice and understanding,” the judge said.

“But many questions remain,” so “we decline the invitation to be a court of ‘first view’ and not ‘a court of review,’” he wrote. “Whether the challenged practices violate the establishment clause is a question best left to the district court to resolve in the first instance.”

The court also rejected a separate challenge to the jail’s ban on Friday group prayer for Muslims. The policy was actually the result of three separate rules that each served “legitimate penological interests,” Richardson said, citing the legal test for violations of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause.

The bans on inmate-led groups and gatherings involving maximum security prisoners reflect valid security concerns, while the jail’s dependence on charitable donations to fund religious services is a rational way to keep costs in check at an institution housing inmates of 33 faiths, the court found.

“It might be true that prisons would be safer if religious accommodations were granted more freely,” leading to happier prisoners, but “we look to see if the policies reasonably relate to some legitimate goal, not whether we would make the policy choices differently,” Richardson wrote.

Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory and Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr., the latter sitting by designation from the Eastern District of Virginia, joined the ruling.

Firewalker-Fields is represented by the University of Virginia School of Law. The jail is represented by Guynn Waddell Carroll & Lockaby PC.

The case is Firewalker-Fields v. Lee, 4th Cir., No. 19-7497, 1/17/23.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mike Leonard in Washington at mleonard@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Nicholas Datlowe at ndatlowe@bloomberglaw.com