The 10th Circuit on Feb. 9 revived a religious rights lawsuit from an inmate convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Ahmad Ajaj, who is serving a 114-year sentence for terrorism, alleges a Colorado prison and prison officials violated his religious rights by not allowing him to participate in daily group prayer. The Muslim inmate’s lawsuit was previously dismissed by a federal district court, which said the claims were moot following his transfer to another prison.
Ajaj’s complaints about group prayer weren’t the only religious rights violations he alleged while incarcerated at United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence. He first sued the Bureau of Prisons and ADX warden John Oliver in 2015 after being denied requests that his medications be delivered outside of fasting hours during the holy month of Ramadan. He alleged violations of his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the federal government from restricting a person’s religious practice unless there is a compelling government interest for doing so and it is done through the least restrictive means.
Shortly after Ajaj filed the lawsuit, ADX changed its policies to allow delivery of medication outside of Ramadan fasting hours and moved to dismiss the claims as moot. Ajaj then filed an amended complaint alleging that the prison’s policy change had only been temporary. He also named additional officials as defendants and added other claims under the First and Fifth Amendments, RFRA and other laws. Ajaj alleged the BOP and prison officials violated RFRA by failing to accommodate fasts on Ramadan and other religious occasions, failing to provide a halal diet and access to an Islamic religious leader and failing to accommodate group prayer five times per day.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado dismissed his claims regarding Ramadan fasts because ADX had updated its policy. The court also dismissed his RFRA claims against individual prison officials, finding RFRA doesn’t allow claims for monetary damages against government officials in their individual capacities.
Ajaj’s other claims for injunctive relief regarding religious practices moved forward — until he was transferred to a prison in Indiana with different policies. The district court dismissed Ajaj’s claims related to ADX-specific procedures as he lacked standing to block practices at a prison where he was no longer an inmate. The court also dismissed as moot his group prayer claims because he was able to attend daily group prayer at the Indiana facility.
However, the 10th Circuit reversed the mootness ruling, concluding that while the Indiana prison allowed more frequent group prayer than ADX, it doesn’t appear that Ajaj was allowed to participate in group prayer five times a day. “Mr. Ajaj’s group-prayer claim has been founded on his belief that he must pray with others five times daily; and the record does not support that it was a ‘concrete fact’ that he could do so in the [Indiana prison],” the court’s opinion states. “We therefore must reverse the dismissal of Mr. Ajaj’s group-prayer claim as moot because it was based on a clearly erroneous finding that Mr. Ajaj could pray with others five times daily.”
Since the start of the litigation, Ajaj has been represented by a team of law students with the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. “Mr. Ajaj is a devout Muslim, and for over eight years, he has been litigating this case, challenging the BOP’s refusal to provide him religiously mandated halal meals and the opportunity for group prayer,” said Julieanne Buchanan, a student attorney who argued for Ajaj at the 10th Circuit. “The [10th] Circuit’s decision shows that the federal government cannot impede upon incarcerated people’s religious freedoms with no justification.”
“The facts suggest a systematic effort by the BOP to evade judicial review by strategically mooting claims alleging serious violations of federal law, so we’re delighted that the [10th] Circuit has held that the case can go forward despite the BOP’s apparent gamesmanship,” said Daniel Greenfield, Supreme Court and appellate counsel at the MacArthur Justice Center, in a statement to Law Week. The organization filed an amicus brief in the case in support of Ajaj.
The 10th Circuit also reversed the district court’s dismissal of Ajaj’s claims against individual-capacity defendants. Ajaj sued BOP officials for monetary damages for their refusal to accommodate his religious practices. At the time of the lower court’s ruling, RFRA didn’t authorize monetary damages. However, while Ajaj’s appeal was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its 2020 Tanzin v. Tanvir decision that litigants may sue federal officials in their individual capacity for money damages under RFRA.
“Our team is grateful for the [10th] Circuit’s decision to remand the group prayer and damages issues to the district court, and we’re eager to begin litigating again. The [c]ourt seemed to agree that the [BOP] cannot utilize transfer as a means to moot the valid legal claims of incarcerated individuals like Mr. Ajaj,” Buchanan said in an email. “Our team certainly sees this as a win in the fight to protect the civil liberties of people in BOP custody, and we look forward to continuing to advocate for justice on Mr. Ajaj’s behalf.”
One question left unanswered by the 10th Circuit is whether Ajaj’s claims for monetary damages can be dismissed due to qualified immunity. The individual defendants urged the 10th Circuit to affirm the district court’s dismissal on the grounds of qualified immunity, and the court concluded that officials may invoke qualified immunity if sued for money damages under RFRA. But the federal appeals court declined to weigh in on the merits of the qualified immunity defense in Ajaj’s case, kicking the issue back to the district court.
“We’re encouraged by the [c]ourt’s decision to allow Mr. Ajaj’s case to go forward. The [BOP] cannot be permitted to avoid accountability for one facility’s violations of its residents’ religious liberties by simply transferring them to another and claiming the issue is moot,” Christopher Godshall, a legal fellow at Washington, D.C.-based Muslim Advocates, said in a statement. Muslim Advocates also filed an amicus brief in support of Ajaj.
“However, we are simultaneously disappointed that the [c]ourt failed to meaningfully assess the applicability of the court-made doctrine of qualified immunity to RFRA claims,” Godshall continued. “Congress has spoken with rare clarity that the religious freedoms of prisoners are sacrosanct. Those individuals charged with their care should not be permitted to avoid accountability for their bad acts by procedural sleights of hand.”