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Weil Seeks Money Damages for Prisoners Whose Religious Freedoms Have Been Violated

A Weil team led by Appeals and Strategic Counseling practice Co-Head Zack Tripp is representing incarcerated individuals across the U.S. whose religious freedoms have been arbitrarily curtailed or denied while in prison.

In its appeal to the Seventh Circuit in Walker v. Baldwin, Weil is arguing that state prisoners can sue prison officials for money damages under a federal statute that protects state prisoners’ religious exercise. It is a big question because it impacts a great number of prisoners across the country. In many circumstances, damages are the only way to hold officials accountable for violating prisoners’ rights.

The case is especially timely now as an outpouring of support for Weil’s position has come this week in the form of six amicus briefs signed by dozens of religious organizations and leading scholars. The list includes Professor Douglas Laycock (represented by the Harvard Law School Religious Liberty Clinic) and Professor Byron Johnson (represented by former Trump Administration Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco), as well as the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Muslim Bar Association of New York, Agudath Israel of America, Muslim Advocates, and the Sikh Coalition.

Weil is arguing on behalf of Thomas Walker, a Rastafarian who was forced by Illinois state prison officials to cut his dreadlocks, which are viewed in the Rastafarian faith as an embodiment of the believer’s connection to God. The record also makes clear that the prison’s supposed security concerns were a pretext, as the prison allowed many other prisoners to wear dreadlocks and they permitted Walker to regrow them to the same length as before. Walker sued, but because he was released during the litigation, his claims were dismissed at summary judgment.

Federal law protects free exercise of religion in state prisons, and the Supreme Court recently held in Tanzin v. Tanvir that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act permits inmates to sue federal officials for damages when their religious liberties are infringed. Yet, lower courts nationwide continue to believe that an identically worded statute that applies to state officials (the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) does not permit incarcerated people to sue for damages when their religious liberties have been wrongly abridged. As a result, prison officials have been able to evade the consequences of abrogating religious rights through the transfer or release of the prisoners, who are then prohibited from seeking damages after the fact.

In light of the Supreme Court’s Tanzin decision, Weil has brought Mr. Walker’s case to the Seventh Circuit, asking it to reverse its stance on damages for incarcerated people denied their religious liberties. Click here to read Weil’s Seventh Circuit brief. A one-page summary of the legal issues in the case is available here.

In addition to Zack Tripp, the pro bono Weil team representing Walker includes associates Josh Halpern, Shai Berman, Sara Weiss, and Natalie Howard (not yet admitted to practice).