Home » News » Federal judge allows Muslim inmate’s First Amendment religious claim to continue

By David L. Hudson Jr., published on February 23, 2019

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Prisoners do not retain as many free-exercise, or other First Amendment rights, as those outside of prison.  However, they do not forfeit all of those rights either. (AP Photo inside a North Carolina jail in 2017 by Gerry Broome. Used with permission from The Associated Press)

A federal district court refused to dismiss an inmate’s civil rights lawsuit that alleged prison officials ignored his religious-liberty rights by forcing him to shower clad only in boxers.


Adam W. Hall, who was incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution in North Carolina, alleged that prison officials violated his religious-liberty rights when they ignored his religious beliefs, as a Shin Muslim, that he must be clothed above the belt and below the ankles at all times.


Inmate said it was against his religious beliefs to disrobe, even for a shower


Hall contended that he suffered both mental and spiritual injuries as a result of being forced to disrobe. His claims falls under the ambit of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which protects individuals’ rights to freely exercise their religious beliefs.


Prisoners do not retain as many free-exercise, or other First Amendment rights, as those outside of prison. However, they do not forfeit all of those rights either. The leading case is O’Lone v. Estate v. Shabazz (1987). In that decision, the Court clarified that prison officials can engage in actions that impact an inmate’s religious liberty rights if their actions are “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”


Inmates actually have greater rights to free-exercise of religion under statutes, such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) or the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). Under these laws, government officials have to meet a higher constitutional standard known as strict scrutiny when they substantially burden an inmate’s religious liberty rights. RFRA applies only to federal inmates, while RLUIPA would apply more broadly and also cover state and local inmates.


Judge allows First Amendment claim to continue


U.S. District Court Judge Frank D. Whitney of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina declined to dismiss Hall’s lawsuit, which he filed pro se, which means without the assistance of an attorney.


“Plaintiff [Hall] has adequately alleged that he has a sincerely held religious belief that is being substantially burdened by Defendant’s actions and therefore his First Amendment claim will be allowed to proceed,” Judge Whitney wrote in his February 12, 2019, decision in Hall v. Hamilton.


Whether Hall ultimately will prevail is an open question, as these lawsuits are often hard to win. However, the refreshing thing is that the federal district court judge recognized that Hall’s pro se complaint adequately alleged a violation of the right to freely exercise his religious faith.


David L. Hudson, Jr., a Visiting Associate Professor of Legal Practice at Belmont University College of Law, is a First Amendment attorney and author who has written, co-written, or co-edited more than 40 books, including First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Documents Decoded: Freedom of Speech (ABC-CLIO, 2017).



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