Friday, September 14, 2007

Arguments filed in Guantanamo detainess case on religious abuse

Baptist Joint Committee200 Maryland Avenue NEWashington, D.C. 20002For Immediate Release Contacts: Jeff HuettSeptember 14, 2007 Phallan Davis 202-544-4226

Oral arguments today in case filed by Guantanamo detainees concerning religious abuse claims

WASHINGTON —Oral arguments are being heard today before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in a government appeal for a lower court decision holding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) provides broad protection for the free exercise rights of military personnel and detainees at Guantanamo, according to an amicus brief submitted by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and other religious organizations. The brief was filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in the case of Rasul, et al. v. Rumsfeld, et al.The case centers on four British citizens who were detained by American forces in Afghanistan, transported to Guantanamo Bay and subsequently released without charge after two years. While there, the men alleged repeated and systematic acts of harassment based on their Muslim faith, including forced shaving of their beards, interruption or prohibition of their efforts to pray, the denial of prayer mats and copies of the Koran, mistreatment of the Koran in their presence by guards who kicked it and threw it in a toilet bucket, and being forced to pray with exposed genital areas. The plaintiffs brought a suit seeking damages against U.S. government officials, claiming violations of the Alien Tort Statute, the Fifth and Eighth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Geneva Convention and RFRA. The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s international law and constitutional claims, but ruled that RFRA applies, even to claims arising from those held at Guantanamo Bay. The defendants appealed that decision to the D.C. Circuit. RFRA provides that “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability,” unless it can demonstrate that doing so is “in furtherance of a compelling government interest,” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest.” RFRA reflects the commitment of the diverse coalition that supported its passage in 1993. By design, RFRA’s protections apply to the federal government, without exception for particular branches, and to all religions.BJC General Counsel K. Hollyn Hollman said individuals and faith communities from across the religious spectrum recognize that our country’s commitment to religious freedom is one of its greatest attributes.“RFRA is a limitation on governmental interference with religious practice,” Hollman said. “Its protections are intentionally broad and reflect the widely shared belief that religious freedom is paramount. “RFRA, like the First Amendment itself, reflects our nation’s high regard for religion and for religious liberty” Hollman said. “We should be alarmed any time the government seeks to narrow those protections.” In its friend-of-the-court brief, the BJC acknowledged grave concerns about terrorism and the agency’s intent not to encumber the government’s efforts to bring culpable parties to justice, while arguing RFRA’s high standard for the federal government in accommodating religious practice and respecting religious diversity be preserved.Those joining the brief include American Jewish Committee, National Association of Evangelicals, National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. All have participated in various ways in the efforts of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, the coalition of dozens of religious organizations that supported the passage of RFRA.The Baptist Joint Committee is a 70-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty organization that works to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, bringing a uniquely Baptist witness to the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government.—30—

Jeff Huett, communications director Baptist Joint Committee 200 Maryland Avenue, N.E. Washington, D.C. 20002