A Muslim prison inmate who claims a guard mocked his religious beliefs by slapping an “I Love Bacon” sign on his back can keep pursuing a lawsuit against his jailers, a federal appeals court has determined.
That bacon sticker incident was just one example of the discrimination he endured at the federal prison at Loretto, inmate Charles Mack contends. It was offensive, he argues, because Muslims consider pork products to be forbidden, unpure food.
Mack claims guards intimidated him so severely that he was afraid to pray. He contends as well that he was fired from his job in the prison commissary because he complained about the supposed religion-based harassment.
In an opinion issued this week by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Judge Julio M. Fuentes partly vacated a ruling by U.S. Western District Court Judge Kim R. Gibson who dismissed Mack’s entire suit against prison officials.
Mack appealed Gibson’s ruling to Fuentes’ court with help from students at Duke University Law School.
According to Fuentes, Mack had a paid job in the prison commissary when the harassment allegedly began in 2009. Because of his religion, Mack was not required to handle pork products as part of his duties. He also was provided with an area where he could pray at work.
Mack claims that one day a guard walked up behind him, slapped him hard on the back and said, “Do you have a problem with what I did?” Other officers and inmates kept laughing and snickering. Finally, another prisoner told Mack an “I Love Bacon” sticker was on the back of his shirt.
Another time while he was at work, a guard told him, “There is no good Muslim except a dead Muslim,” Mack claims. He said the incidents left him so intimidated that he stopped praying while at work.
After Mack spoke to a supervisor, he was fired from the commissary. He was told the termination was based on him bringing in commissary slips for other inmates,” an accusation Mack claimed was untrue.
Mack filed a federal lawsuit seeking $75,000 in damages from each of four prison officials. In dismissing the case, Gibson found Mack hadn’t proven the officials had substantially burdened his ability to exercise his religion.
Fuentes’ court reached the opposite conclusion. The appeals judges sent the case back to Gibson for further action after finding Mack had “sufficiently stated” a claim that he was retaliated against for exercising his First Amendment right to freedom of religion, and that the prison officials are not legally immune from his lawsuit.
“Mack’s allegations, taken as true, raise legitimate concerns about how he was treated in prison,” Fuentes wrote.