Settlement Protects Religious Freedom for Inmates in Pierce County Jail

News Release: 
Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Contact: Doug Honig, ACLU of WA at 206-624-2184 - Hank Balson, PILG - 206-838-1800 x303

The Pierce County Jail is adopting new policies to protect the religious freedom of inmates, according to a settlement agreement announced today by the ACLU of Washington and the Public Interest Law Group, PLLC (PILG).  The settlement is a result of a lawsuit that challenged jail officials’ failure to accommodate the religious needs of Muslim inmates and their operation of a program that granted extra benefits and services to Christian inmates. The ACLU-WA and PILG filed the suit (Tarrer v. Pierce County) in U.S. District Court in Tacoma in September 2010 on behalf of inmates at the jail.

“Persons of all faiths have a constitutional right to practice their religion. This settlement will help ensure fair treatment for Muslims inmates and for inmates of all faiths,” said ACLU-WA staff attorney La Rond Baker.

“The settlement recognizes that jail officials cannot arbitrarily favor certain religions over others, or restrict an inmate’s religious exercise without a compelling reason,” said PILG attorney Hank Balson. “It fulfills the intent of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which Congress passed in 2000 to ensure that prisoners of all faiths could continue to practice their religion while incarcerated.”

Under the settlement, jail officials agreed to accommodate Muslim inmates’ religious dietary needs, to allow Muslim inmates to freely exercise their religious rights in ways consistent with the jail’s security needs, and to train jail staff to respect the religious freedom of inmates.  Officials also agreed to eliminate discriminatory policies and practices that resulted in preferential treatment for inmates of some religions. Key features of the settlement include:

  • Dress: Inmates will be allowed to wear kufis (brimless short caps that were previously prohibited) and modify their clothing in certain situations to comply with the dictates of their faith.
  • Meals: The jail will make halal meals available to Muslim inmates, comparable to the kosher meals made available to Jewish inmates. During the month of Ramadan, the jail will offer Muslim inmates adequate meals during non-fasting hours.
  • Religious Items: Inmates will be permitted to purchase prayer rugs and other previously banned items needed for religious worship from the jail commissary.
  • Group Prayer: The jail will provide opportunities for small groups of up to five inmates to congregate for prayer and religious study.
  • Preferential Treatment: The Christian-only “Responsible Living Unit,” also known as the “God Pod,” ceased operation. If a similar unit is established in the future, it will be a secular program open to all eligible inmates regardless of religion.
  • Training: All jail staff will receive annual training on First Amendment and RLUIPA issues.

In the suit, the ACLU and PILG represented Larry Tarrer and Raymond Garland, practicing Muslims who encountered numerous barriers while trying to exercise their religious rights in the jail. Jail officials prohibited Muslim men from engaging in regular group prayer, from wearing certain religious clothes, and from possessing items that are integral to Islamic worship. In addition, while jail officials appropriately offered kosher meals to Jewish inmates to accommodate Jewish dietary restrictions they refused to offer comparable meals to Muslims to accommodate the dietary laws of Islam.  Further, when Mr. Tarrer, and other Muslim inmates, attempted to observe a religiously-mandated fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan jail medical staff refused to change the time when they ordinarily gave him his prescription medication, forcing him to choose between complying with his religious fasting requirement or taking his medication on the jail’s normal schedule.

The jail also maintained, and partially funded, a Christian-based "Responsible Living Unit," also known as the "God Pod," where inmates participated in Christian Bible study and other Christian activities. Inmates in the unit received privileges denied to inmates of other faiths, more out-of-cell time, more visits from outside volunteers, and more in-unit entertainment opportunities. When Mr. Tarrer asked to be considered for inclusion in the Responsible Living Unit, he was refused entry because, as he was told, everyone in the unit was Christian and that unit activities were Christian-oriented.

As part of the settlement, Pierce County paid $200,000 in legal fees and costs.  Plaintiffs are represented by Hank Balson and Wendy W. Chen of the Public Interest Law Group, PLLC, and by Sarah Dunne and La Rond Baker of the ACLU of Washington.