Court Affirms Prisoner's Right to Religious Publication

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
November 10, 2011 12:40 pm

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NEW ORLEANS, La – Today the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal, affirmed the U. S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana’s ruling that the newspaper “The Final Call” cannot be censored or denied to a prisoner who has requested it as part of his religious practices.

Henry Leonard, a prisoner in the David Wade Correctional Center, is a member of the Nation of Islam, which publishes “The Final Call.” The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPSC) denied “The Final Call” because prison officials found the content offensive. Because of the censorship imposed by prison officials, Mr. Leonard was unable to maintain and expand upon his religious beliefs. After the trial court ruled in Mr. Leonard’s favor, agreed with the district court that banning the entire newspaper is not permissible simply because it includes the column “The Muslim Program.” Recognizing that “The Muslim Program” has been included in all prior issues of “The Final Call,” the Fifth Circuit affirmed the prior decision, which means that Mr. Leonard must receive his religious newspaper as the law requires.

“This ruling confirms the fundamental right to religious practice, as guaranteed by the First Amendment,” said ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman. “Government officials do not have the right to ban material simply because they find it objectionable. Religious freedom means that authorities may not interfere with religious practices. Today’s ruling follows longstanding law protecting religious expression for everyone, including the most vulnerable and those practicing minority religions.”

In affirming the trial court’s decision, the Fifth Circuit has rejected the DPSC’s arguments that “The Final Call” is a threat to prison security. “The First Amendment means that the government cannot dictate what people can read and what religious materials they may access,” said ACLU of Louisiana Staff Attorney Justin Harrison. “This is true even in prison unless officials can demonstrate that the requested materials will cause a disturbance inside the facility. The court recognizes that materials cannot be banned simply on the basis of an unsubstantiated fear of possible harm. Simply put, the court has acknowledged that prison officials had no authority to deny religious publications to someone who wanted nothing more than to read them.”

A companion ACLU case, Anderson v. Cain, was stayed pending the outcome of this appeal, and because of this ruling Shawn Anderson, the plaintiff in that lawsuit, will also be entitled to receive The Final Call.

A copy of the court’s ruling may be found here.

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