Saturday, April 25, 2009

DC Circuit Again Says GITMO Detainees Not Covered By RFRA

In Rasul v. Myers, (DC Cir., April 24, 2009), the DC Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed its earlier holding that Guantanamo detainees cannot bring an action under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to challenge alleged religious harassment at GITMO. The detainees alleged abuses such as denial of a Qu'ran and prayer mats, throwing a copy of the Qur'an into a toilet and forced shaving of their beards. The U.S. Supreme Court had remanded the case to the 9th Circuit for reconsideration in light of intervening Supreme Court precedent. (See prior posting.) Now, in a 2-1 decision, the DC Circuit concludes that non-resident aliens are not protected "persons" under RFRA. Judge Brown, writing a concurring opinion, took a different approach. She concludes that a literal application of RFRA's language would cover plaintiffs, but that this was clearly inconsistent with Congress' broader intent in enacting RFRA. She rejected the narrow definition of "person" put forward by the majority, but wrote:
Accepting plaintiffs' argument that RFRA imports the entire Free Exercise Clause edifice into the military detention context would revolutionize the treatment of captured combatants in a way Congress did not contemplate. In drafting RFRA, Congress was not focused on how to accommodate the important values of religious toleration in the military detention setting. If Congress had focused specifically on this challenge, it would undoubtedly have struck a different balance: somewhere between making government officials' wallets available to every detainee not afforded the full panoply of free exercise rights and declaring those in our custody are not "persons." It would not have created a RFRA-like damage remedy, but it likely would have prohibited, subject to appropriate exceptions, unnecessarily degrading acts of religious humiliation. It would have sought to deter such acts not by compensating the victims, but by punishing the perpetrators or through other administrative measures….

In 2000, when Congress amended RFRA, jihad was not a prominent part of our vocabulary and prolonged military detentions of alleged enemy combatants were not part of our consciousness. They are now. Congress should revisit RFRA with these circumstances in mind.
CNN yesterday reported on the decision.