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Gitmo detainees' lawyers invoke Hobby Lobby decision in court filing

Attorneys say clients have religious rights afforded by same law cited by SCOTUS in controversial Hobby Lobby ruling

Lawyers for two Guantanamo Bay detainees have filed motions asking a U.S. court to block officials from preventing the inmates from taking part in communal prayers during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The lawyers argue that – in light of the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision – the detainees’ rights are protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The motions were filed this week with the Washington D.C. district court on behalf of Emad Hassan of Yemen and Ahmed Rabbani of Pakistan. U.K.-based human rights group Reprieve said both men asked for the intervention after military officials at the prison "prevented them from praying communally during Ramadan."

During Ramadan, a month of prayer and reflection that began last weekend, Muslims are required to fast every day from sunrise to sunset. But what is at issue in this case is the ability to perform extra prayers, called tarawih, "in which [Muslims] recite one-thirtieth of the Quran in consecutive segments throughout the month."

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, told Al Jazeera on Friday that the "Defense Department is aware of the filing," and that the "government will respond through the legal system."

The detainees' lawyers said courts have previously concluded that Guantanamo detainees do not have "religious free exercise rights" because they are not “persons within the scope of the RFRA.”

But the detainees’ lawyers say the Hobby Lobby decision changes that.

"Hobby Lobby makes clear that all persons – human and corporate, citizen and foreigner, resident and alien – enjoy the special religious free exercise protections of the RFRA," the lawyers argued in court papers. 

In its controversial Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that the contraception insurance coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act – also known as Obamacare – violated the rights of "closely held for-profit corporations," if a company’s owners object to birth control on religious grounds. The court, which decided the case 5-4, said that the mandate "substantially burdens" the corporation’s exercise of religion in violation of RFRA.

Lawyers for the detainees also contend that both Hassan and Rabbani are being prevented from participating in communal prayers because they are on hunger strike. 

"Why are the authorities at Guantanamo Bay seeking to punish detainees for hunger striking by curtailing their right to pray? If, under our law, Hobby Lobby is a ‘person’ with a right to religious freedom, surely Gitmo detainees are people too,” said Cori Crider, an attorney for the detainees and a director at Reprieve. 

The Defense Department did not directly address whether the men were being punished for their hunger strike, but responded more broadly.

"We are committed to religious freedoms and practices for the detainees, keeping in mind the overall goal of security and safety for detainees and staff," Caggins said. 

The Defense Department did confirm that detainees in general have on previous occasions been allowed to pray in groups, and that mealtimes have also been adjusted for those participating in Ramadan fasting. 

Reprieve also said that several Guantanamo detainees, in separate litigation, have asked a court to stop force-feeding practices at the facility. Among them is Abu Wa’el Dhiab, whose case is expected to be heard before Labor Day, the rights group said. 

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