Lawyers representing Guantanamo Bay prisoners are now invoking the recent Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that if corporations are allowed to have religious rights, so should detainees.
The motions, which were filed in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Ahmed Rabbani of Pakistan and Emad Hassan of Yemen, asked the court to end the military’s policy of denying Gitmo prisoners the right to observe communal prayer during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Two separate courts have previously upheld restrictions on the religious expression of prisoners, arguing that Gitmo detainees are nonresident aliens and thus do not qualify as “persons” under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA). But the new filing points out that this position is inconsistent with last week’s Supreme Courts ruling, which granted religious rights to a corporate “person” — Hobby Lobby — under RFRA.
“Hobby Lobby makes clear that all persons — human and corporate, citizen and foreigner, resident and alien — enjoy the special religious free exercise protections of the RFRA,” the filing reads. “Guantanamo Bay detainees, as flesh-and-blood human beings, are surely ‘individuals,’ and thus are no less ‘person[s]’ than are the for-profit corporations in Hobby Lobby or the resident noncitizens whom Hobby Lobby gives as an example of persons to whom the RFRA must apply.”
“Thus, Hobby Lobby puts it beyond reasonable dispute that, as ‘person[s]’ protected by the RFRA, Guantanamo Bay detainees enjoy rights of religious free exercise, including the right to pray in congregation.”
Guantanamo Bay prisoners have frequently complained about a lack of respect for their religious rights at the facility. In 2005, detainees accused guards of flushing a Qur’an down a toilet, a claim U.S. officials later denied, although they admitted to some “mishandling” of the Muslim holy book. Hunger strikes have also been a recurring issue at the prison since 2005, with some prisoners refusing food to protest what they claim is their wrongful imprisonment and regular disruptions of their religious traditions, such as daily prayers. In June of this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit dismissed a case filed on behalf of detainees who claimed that guards inflicted “religious humiliation” on them — such as the shaving their beards and desecrating their Qur’ans — even after a military panel found the prisoners not to be “enemy combatants.”
As for the new case, it remains to be seen whether judges will be swayed by the lawyer’s line of reasoning, especially given that courts tend to defer to the military’s own justice system. Still, the case highlights the rapidly changing legal landscape around issues of religious liberty and corporate personhood, and exposes the ever-increasing scope of cases to which the Hobby Lobby decision might apply. It also exposes the awkward position in which the court now finds itself. In her blistering dissent of last week’s ruling, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned that the Hobby Lobby decision likely forces the court to take on the uncomfortable — and possibly constitutionally dubious — task of deciding whose religious claims “count,” which runs the risk of violating the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on “establishing” one religious tradition over others.
“Approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be ‘perceived as favoring one religion over another,’ the very ‘Risk the establishment clause was trying to preclude,’” Ginsburg wrote, quoting previous court decisions. “The Court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield … by its immoderate reading of RFRA.”