Just because a prisoner relinquishes her freedom doesn’t mean she must also relinquish her freedom of religion. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be, pursuant to the Constitution’s First Amendment.
Unfortunately for Sakeena Majeed—and countless inmates in facilities throughout the U.S.—the fact that inmates retain their fundamental constitutional rights is either not well known, or simply not well respected.
Majeed argues in a recently filed lawsuit that upon her arrival to serve a 60-day sentence at the Cuyahoga County Jail in Cleveland, Ohio, a corrections officer told her attendance at weekly Christian prayer services was mandatory. When she objected to mandatory participation, explaining she was Muslim, the corrections officer threatened to send her to solitary confinement. Majeed was therefore forced to attend Christian services every Friday for the duration of her sentence, at one point being publicly mocked by another corrections officer for not actively participating in the worship.
This is not a difficult case if the corrections officer is found to have coerced Majeed into religious practice. The Supreme Court has held repeatedly and unequivocally that the Constitution prohibits the government from compelling individuals to engage in religious practices, and that includes inmates.
Though not a difficult case, it is one that occurs far too often, as Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State points out. Boston notes that coercing inmates to participate in faith-based programs and services is not an uncommon occurrence in American jails and prisons. Even following release, former inmates have been compelled to participate in religious-themed programs as a condition of parole.
Majeed’s case is indicative of a broader trend, one in which government institutions abuse their authority by forcing religion on a captive and powerless population. Prisoners give up many rights, but their right to engage (or not engage) in a faith of their choosing isn’t one of them.