American Taliban Convert Sues over Prayer Ban

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John Walker Lindh, who's serving a 20-year sentence for aiding the Taliban during a 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, is suing the prison warden for violating his freedom of religion.

The California native said the warden's ban on daily group prayer violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

He scoffed at the government's argument that daily group prayer would endanger prison security. He pointed out that inmates are allowed to talk, play games, and engage in other activities while out of their cells, which is most of the day.

According to court documents, Muslims in the tightly controlled Communications Management Unit in Terre Haute, Ind., are allowed to pray together only once a week, except during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Other faiths' gatherings are also limited. At other times, they must pray alone in their individual cells, which Lindh said doesn't meet the requirements of his school of Islam.

But Michael R. Smith Sr., chief chaplain with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, testified that the federal prison system strives to accommodate inmates' religious beliefs, but it can't allow daily group prayer for American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh and other Muslims because of security and logistical concerns.

The rule allowing only supervised group prayer at federal prisons was put in place following a 2004 Inspector General's Office report that raised concerns about efforts to radicalize Muslim inmates after the Sept. 11 attacks, Smith said.

The government claims in court documents that Lindh delivered a radical sermon to other Muslim prisoners in February.

It also said he delivered the sermon entirely in Arabic, which is not allowed under Bureau of Prison regulations that require all speech but ritual prayers to be in English.

Ken Falk, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which is handling Lindh's case, denied that the speech was radical.

Prisoners in Lindh's unit are under open and covert audio and video surveillance, and all of their phone calls are monitored except for talks with their attorneys.

Two Muslim inmates in the same unit filed the lawsuit originally in 2009. Lindh joined the lawsuit in 2010.

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