New Orleans - Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed lawsuits on behalf of a Catholic and a Muslim prisoner at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, each being denied the right to practice his religion freely.
Death row prisoner Donald Leger has sued after the prison began locking all death row televisions to religious programming on Sunday mornings. The televisions, located directly outside death row prisoners' cells, are locked to predominately Baptist programming on Sunday mornings. Leger, a devout Catholic, simply wants the ability to turn from the mandated Baptist programming to a Catholic Mass that also airs on Sunday morning.
The other suit filed today involves a Muslim prisoner, Shawn Anderson, who is being denied access to religious literature and publications. Anderson, a member of the Nation of Islam, also wants to gather with fellow believers to worship. Anderson's suit comes within two years of Angola's settlement with the ACLU of Louisiana in a lawsuit brought on behalf of a Mormon prisoner denied access to religious publications from reputable vendors, including Brigham Young University.
"Catholics, Muslims and Mormons just want the same opportunities that Baptist prisoners are given." said Marjorie R. Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. "As Warden, Burl Cain can tell prisoners to do a lot of things, but he can't compel them to practice a certain religion or block their reasonable requests to practice their religion. We fully support Warden Cain's efforts to encourage prisoners to look forward toward changing their lives for the better, but he cannot do that through religious coercion."
Warden Cain has recently agreed to the ACLU's request that he remove a prayer and New Testament Scripture reference from a monument at the front entrance of Angola, recognizing that his actions may infringe the First Amendment rights of the prisoners in his custody. The patently unconstitutional monument was prominently displayed for years and was the subject of a recent complaint to the ACLU of LA.
Cain recently was quoted as saying that he "would never again put someone to death without telling him about his soul and about Jesus." Esman continued, "Although it's a kind sentiment, Cain's job is to be Warden of Angola, not Chaplain of Angola. He cannot impose his religion on those who do not share it."
Attorneys are ACLU of Louisiana Legal Director Katie Schwartzmann and Prison Litigation Fellow Barry Gerharz. Shawn Anderson's lawsuit was filed in cooperation with Shearman & Sterling LLP in New York.