Religious Law

8th Circuit Tosses 19 Contempt Citations for Defendant Who Refused to Stand for Judge


A federal appeals court has ordered a judge to consider the religious rights of a defendant who claimed her Muslim religion prevented her from standing at the opening and close of court sessions.

The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis of Minneapolis to reconsider 19 out of 20 contempt sanctions against Amina Farah Ali, report the Associated Press and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The court said Ali’s religion claim should be evaluated under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Davis had sentenced Amina Farah Ali to 100 days in jail for the 20 times she refused to rise over a two-day period in October 2011. Ali, who was accused of providing money to a terrorist group, is a Muslim who cited religious reasons for her refusal. Her lawyer had explained to the judge that Ali believes “she should not rise for persons when she does not rise for the prophet.”

The court said one contempt charge may stand because Ali remained seated one time without challenging a written order to follow court decorum. The other 19 contempt citations were based on conduct after Ali’s lawyer objected to the order.

Ali spent two days in jail. She relented and was released after three clerics who visited her advised she could stand for the court if she was “in a difficult situation, if [she was] fearful of [her] own life,” the 8th Circuit opinion (PDF) says.

The judge had evaluated Ali’s claim under the First Amendment without considering RFRA, the 8th Circuit said. The law requires the judge to consider whether his order directing Ali to stand was the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest, according to the opinion.

The fact that Ali’s beliefs weren’t uniformly held by Muslims isn’t relevant, the appeals court said. “The [trial] court noted that Ali’s interpretation of Islamic doctrine was inconsistent with the interpretations of her co-defendant, the Muslim spectators in the courtroom, and the Muslim clerics who came to speak with her,” the appeals court said. “While these may be appropriate considerations in a First Amendment analysis of whether a practice is fundamental to a particular religion, … such considerations are irrelevant in the RFRA context so long as Ali’s objection to the pretrial order was rooted in her own sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Ali was convicted of providing material support to a known terrorist group. She had contended she didn’t know she was raising money for a terrorist group and intended only to benefit needy people in her native Somalia.

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