Tuesday, September 20, 2022

7th Circuit: Muslim Inmate Entitled To Religious Exemption From Strip Searches By Transgender Guards

In West v. Radtke, (7th Cir., Sept. 16, 2022), the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Muslim inmate's rights under RLUIPA were violated when prison authorities refused to exempt him from strip searches conducted by transgender men. Wisconsin first argued that the inmate, Rufus West, should not care that he is searched by a transgender inmate because Islam equally condemns exposing the naked body to any guard, male or female. The court responded that:

The substantial-burden inquiry does not ask whether West’s understanding of his faith obligations is correct.

Prison authorities went on to argue that the burden on West's religious exercise was justified by the state's compelling interest in complying with the anti-discrimination requirements of Title VII which bars discrimination against its transgender guards. The Court said, however:

The prison offers no argument under established Title VII doctrine that exempting West from cross-sex strip searches would inflict an adverse employment action on its transgender employees....

The prison’s Title VII argument would fail even if it could show that exempting West from cross-sex strip searches would lead to an adverse employment action. Title VII permits sex-based distinctions in employment where sex “is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of [a] particular business or enterprise.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(e)....

Sex is a bona fide occupational qualification for performing strip searches of prisoners with sincere religious objections to cross-sex strip searches.

The Court also rejected the prison's equal protection defense. It remanded for further development the inmate's 4th Amendment claims.