Two Iowa prison inmates sue over religious issues

DES MOINES (AP) – Two Iowa prison inmates must receive nightly meals and chapel time during Ramadan and be allowed the same religious accommodations as other Muslims, a federal judge ruled.

Michael Williams-El and James Blair-Bey sued prison officials in 2012 from the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison.

Both men are serving life prison sentences for first-degree murder. Blair, 54, was sentenced in December 1982 from Polk County and Williams, 40, went to prison in 1999 from Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, prison records indicate.

Magistrate Judge Thomas Shields said in ruling filed Tuesday in Des Moines federal law and the U.S. Constitution requires the men to be able to participate in their religion.

The men identify themselves as members of the Moorish Science Temple of America, and they said in court documents their religious faith is Moorish Islam.

In 2012 the men were no longer permitted to participate in the activities associated with Ramadan including eating their meal after sunset as other Muslims did. They also were no longer authorized to meet at night in the prison chapel with other inmates to break their fast, read the Quran and engage in discussions. The decision was made after the Muslim leader Imam Taha Tawil determined that members of the Moorish Science Temple have beliefs contrary to those of Islam.

Tawil said in court testimony that Moorish Science Temple members recognize Noble Drew Ali as a prophet, which Tawil said contradicts the Quran which teaches that Muhammad is the final prophet.

The two inmates sued the state and more than a dozen corrections officials seeking the right to practice their religion.

Shields found excluding the men from Muslim practices violated a federal law that says no government shall impose a substantial burden on religious exercise of those confined to an institution.

“The court finds that plaintiffs’ ability to practice their sincerely held religious beliefs is substantially burdened by the penitentiary’s refusal to provide them nightly meals and chapel time during Ramadan,” Shields wrote.

The men also wanted to be able to use scented oils in their cells for their daily prayers.

Shields ruled that prison officials could prohibit in-cell possession of scented oil for safety and security reasons. The officials had said the oil could help an inmate slip out of handcuffs and the scents could make it difficult for dogs to discover contraband.

Blair-Bey also complained the prison’s substitute for meat, which consisted of lentils and beans, caused him to experience gastrointestinal problems that left his body in a state of “impurity and uncleanliness.” He asked for soy, wheat and whole grains instead.

Shields concluded the prison officials violated no federal law or constitutional rights on the food issue.

The attorney for the men, Rockne Cole, said they’re pleased with the outcome because their primary concern was the inability to observe Ramadan.

“We felt it was a very clear violation to fail to accommodate the practice of Ramadan for these individual inmates,” he said. It’s unlikely the men will pursue an appeal of the issues involving food and the scented oil, he said.

Iowa Department of Corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta said the department would not comment as it reviews the ruling and considers an appeal.

“We are reviewing the ruling and are considering our options,” said Geoff Greenwood, spokesman for the Iowa attorney general’s office, which represented the department in the case.