Columns

ACLU Using Religious Freedom Act It Opposed to Defend Muslim Prisoner

Melody Wood told PJM the ACLU’s use of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act on behalf of a Muslim jail prisoner who doesn’t want to eat pork is a classic case of the civil rights organization’s hypocrisy.

“I would say the ACLU has the right to use RFRA to defend the religious beliefs of this American,” said Wood, a research assistant at the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation. “But it should also recognize that RFRA should protect all religious beliefs, including beliefs regarding marriage and sexuality.”

The ACLU has rallied to the side of Gannon Thomas, a practicing Muslim at the Boone County Jail in Indiana.

Thomas knows the drill. He has been in the Boone County Jail several times since 2010. He’s doing time now on a felony burglary charge.

In its complaint filed on behalf of Thomas, the ACLU argued the inmate is being fed pork even though he is required by his religion to consume only halal food, which adheres to Islamic law.

The ACLU deemed that to be a violation of Thomas’ rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as well as Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Wood pointed out in March 2016 that although the ACLU was a ferocious opponent of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed in 2015, it has often used similar federal and state legislation to fight for the rights of members of the Sikh, Muslim and even Quaker religions.

However, Wood wrote with co-author Tory McClintock, a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation, that was the ACLU of the past.

“Unlike the ACLU of the past, the ACLU of the present believes that only certain religious beliefs are worthy of protection and that others should be suppressed,” Wood and McClintock wrote on the Heritage Foundation commentary site the Daily Signal.

“Where the ACLU once defended sincerely held religious beliefs that were unpopular, it now sacrifices the religious liberty rights of millions of good-faith Americans before the altar of sexual politics,” Wood and McClintock concluded.

The ACLU of Indiana declined a PJM request for comment.

However, Louise Melling, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote there is nothing hypocritical about the organization’s stance toward RFRA legislation and the way it has been used in Indiana and other states.

Federal RFRA law, she argued in the Washington Post, has been used as a “shield” to protect those whose religious rights were being trampled, while state RFRA legislation has become a “sword” to be used to “discriminate against women, gay and transgender people and others.”

Melling pointed to the case of Iknoor Singh, who was told he would have to cut his hair, shave his beard and remove his turban, all in violation of his Sikh religious beliefs, when he joined the U.S. Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

The ACLU correctly used the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, wrote Melling, to defend the Hofstra University student’s religious liberty.

She wrote that using RFRA to protect a bakery that refuses to serve a same-sex customer would be wrong.

What’s the difference between the cases of Iknoor Singh, Gannon Thomas in Boone County, Ind., and a baker who turns down a gay couple’s wedding cake order?

Melling argued accommodating Singh’s faith didn’t hurt anyone else, while the baker’s religious belief would harm the gay couple.

“Religious freedom needs protection. But religious liberty doesn’t mean the right to discriminate or to impose one’s views on others,” Melling wrote.

Jane Henegar, the executive director of the ACLU of Indiana, said her state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act was “introduced as a backlash reaction to achieving marriage equality for same-sex couples.”

Of course, arguments over the finer points of RFRA are pretty academic compared to what people like Boone County Sheriff Mike Nichols have to deal with every day.

Nichols said he was “extremely disappointed” that Gannon and the ACLU went to court before they talked to him about the problem.

“I was not even aware that there was an issue that one of our inmates had, about the type of food he was receiving because of his religious practices,” Nichols said in a statement.

Kenneth Falk, the legal director of the Indiana ACLU, told the Lebanon Reporter the organization planned to meet with the county’s attorney to see if they could reach an agreement on the prisoner’s diet before the injunction is passed.

Jennifer Drobac, a professor at the Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, told the Indianapolis Star there could be an easier path to resolving this dispute than going to court.

The Boone County Jail could simply offer a vegetarian diet.

“Serve him some rice and beans, for crying out loud,” Drobac said.