The ACLU of Georgia and the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion & Belief have sent a letter to the United States Penitentiary of Atlanta in response to their discrimination against Audra Ragland, a Christian woman who covers her head. In September 2016, Mrs. Ragland travelled nearly 150 miles from her home in South Carolina to visit her brother who was incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary of Atlanta. When she arrived, a prison officer demanded that she remove her head covering because she was neither Jewish nor Muslim, and because the government did not “recognize” head covering as a legitimate Christian belief.
Mrs. Ragland did not immediately bring this incident to the attention of the federal Bureau of Prisons last year because she feared that her brother would face retaliation for her complaint. Now that her brother has been released, she seeks to ensure that no one will face the same kind of religious discrimination that she faced that day.
When Mrs. Ragland explained that she covered her head for religious reasons, the officer interrogated her about her religious identity. Once she identified herself as a Christian, the government official refused to allow her to proceed through security because her Christian belief in head covering was not “recognized”. He then added if she were “Muslim or Jewish” the head covering would have been “fine.”
When Mrs. Ragland offered to explain her religious beliefs by pointing to 1 Corinthians 11 in the Bible, the government official repeated that the federal prison does not “recognize Christian covering.”
“Forcing Mrs. Ragland to choose between her faith and her family is outrageous, constitutionally repugnant, and wrong,” stated Sean J. Young, Legal Director for the ACLU of Georgia. “Officials have no business demanding that we conform to the government’s interpretation of Scripture or of any other religious text.”
Permitting the adherent of one religion to wear a head covering while denying the adherent of another faith the right to wear one constitutes blatant religious discrimination in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The discrimination against Mrs. Ragland also violated the U.S. Bureau of Prison’s policy governing visitors’ religious headwear and the U.S. Penitentiary of Atlanta’s own policies.