Suit Challenges Religious Discrimination Against Muslims in Pierce County Jail Muslims Denied Rights To Practice Their Religion

News Release: 
Friday, July 15, 2011

Pierce County Jail inmates filed a class action lawsuit on September 20, 2010 challenging jail officials’ illegal treatment of Muslim inmates. As the suit alleges, jail officials routinely treat Muslim prisoners worse than others when it comes to accommodating religious dietary needs, allowing for group prayer, and providing access to religious resources.  The jail also operates a special unit known as the “God Pod,” where Christian inmates enjoy housing and programming privileges that are denied to prisoners of other faiths.

The lawsuit challenging these and other conditions was filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, with the ACLU of Washington and the Public Interest Law Group (PILG) representing the inmates.

“Persons of all faiths have a constitutional right to practice their religion, including when in jail. This suit seeks to end a range of discriminatory practices against Muslim inmates and to end the unequal treatment they are suffering in the Pierce County Jail,” said ACLU of Washington staff attorney Rose Spidell, one of the lawyers representing the inmates.

The ACLU and the Public Interest Law Group are representing Larry Tarrer and Raymond Garland, two inmates seeking fair treatment on behalf of all Muslim men in the Pierce County Jail. The plaintiffs are practicing Muslims who have encountered numerous barriers while trying to exercise their religious rights in the jail.  For example, jail officials prohibit 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 offer kosher meals to Jewish inmates to accommodate Jewish dietary restrictions, they refuse to offer comparable meals to Muslims to accommodate the dietary laws of Islam.  When Mr. Tarrer was attempting to comply with 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, telling him that he would have to choose between complying with his religious fasting requirement or taking his medication on the jail’s normal schedule.

At the same time that jail officials refuse to accommodate Muslim inmates’ religious practices, they maintain a Christian-based "Responsible Living Unit," also known as the "God Pod," where inmates participate in Christian Bible study and other Christian activities. Inmates in the unit receive privileges denied to inmates of other faiths, including substantially more outdoor recreation time, 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 told that everyone in the unit was Christian and that unit activities were Christian-oriented.

“In 2000, Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) to ensure that prisoners of all faiths could continue to practice their religion while incarcerated,” said PILG attorney Hank Balson.  “Jail officials cannot arbitrarily favor certain religions over others, or restrict an inmate’s religious exercise unless they have a compelling reason to do so. We don’t believe there is a compelling reason to justify the unequal treatment of Muslim inmates in the Pierce County Jail.”

The suit seeks, among other things, a court order directing the jail to eliminate its discriminatory policies and practices that result in preferential treatment for inmates of some religions but not others, 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.

Plaintiffs are represented by Hank Balson and Wendy Chen of the Public Interest Law Group, PLLC, and by Sarah Dunne and Rose Spidell of the ACLU of Washington. The ACLU-WA is representing prisoners in another class action lawsuit (Herrera v Pierce County) against Pierce County Jail, a longstanding suit seeking adequate medical care for inmates.