Muslim inmate ordered to handle pork can sue staff

By The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Prison staff who punished a Muslim inmate for refusing to handle pork do not have immunity from his religious-freedom lawsuit, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Henry Williams sued under the First Amendment and a federal religious-freedom law, saying he lost his cook's job and was restricted to his cell for 30 days after refusing to handle roast pork.

Williams missed religious and other events during his confinement, and ended up with a lower-paying janitorial job, according to yesterday's 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Williams v. Bitner.

Senior inmate-cooks at SCI-Rockview, in Centre County, had agreed to honor Williams' concerns by giving him other duties when pork was served.

But staff members on March 6, 2001, ordered him to handle the meat, saying he could use gloves as other Muslim inmates did. Williams refused, and was disciplined. His appeals within the prison system failed.

Although the 3rd Circuit had not previously considered such a case, the defendants had "fair warning" from other circuits — and more generally from the U.S. Supreme Court — that they should "respect, and accommodate when practicable" Williams' religious concerns, 3rd Circuit Judge Julio M. Fuentes wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.

The ruling upholds a lower court decision that also denied the staff qualified immunity. The case now goes back to the lower court for further proceedings.

Williams is seeking back pay, a clean conduct record, an end to religious-based harassment and unspecified damages. His claims are based on the First Amendment's religious-freedom clause and RLUIPA, the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.