Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued a decision in Mack v. Yost et al., vacating the District Court’s grant of qualified immunity to corrections officers who are alleged to have engaged in a campaign of religious bigotry and harassment against Charles Mack, a practicing Muslim, during his incarceration at a federal prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania. The decision clears the way for Mr. Mack’s claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal statute that prohibits government agencies and officials from unjustified interference with a person’s exercise of their faith, to proceed to trial.
In its ruling, the Third Circuit affirmed that it was clearly established that Mr. Mack had a right to pray free from the deliberate campaign of bigotry and disruption that he testified to having experienced.
In November 2021, LDF and Rights Behind Bars submitted an amicus brief in support of Mr. Mack, arguing in part that the Defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity because it should have been obvious that the egregious discriminatory conduct alleged in this case was unlawful.
“Allowing qualified immunity to protect officers who engage in hateful, abusive campaigns to prevent people in their care from exercising religious freedom would undermine critical federally protected rights for us all,” said Michael Skocpol, Assistant Counsel at LDF. “We are grateful that the Court’s decision has reaffirmed important limits on a doctrine that is too often invoked to prevent vulnerable people like Mr. Mack from pursuing justice when their fundamental civil rights are violated.”
“The Religious Freedom Restorations Act was codified to protect those who exercise their religious beliefs. As the Court recognized, qualified immunity does not shield from liability government officials who routinely harass and humiliate someone for the sacred and gentle act of prayer,” said Adam Murphy, Assistant Counsel at LDF. “We commend the Court’s ruling, which recognizes Mr. Mack’s right to exercise his religious beliefs free of abuse.”
“Qualified immunity is a doctrine that has frequently been used to deny justice and the right to a remedy for people that have experienced a violation of their rights while incarcerated. There can be no room in a case like this to apply a doctrine that repeatedly and brazenly undermines our legal rights,” added Sam Weiss, Executive Director of Rights Behind Bars. “We are encouraged by the Court’s reversal of qualified immunity, which allows Mr. Mack to continue his pursuit of justice for the harm and harassment he has described.”
It is critical for our courts to hold law enforcement, and other government officials, accountable when they violate people’s civil rights. LDF’s Qualified Immunity Working Group advocates for an end to qualified immunity through public advocacy while working to limit the doctrine’s scope through litigation. If you would like to refer a case to the Working Group, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founded in 1940, the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) is the nation’s first civil rights law organization. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative. In media attributions, please refer to us as the Legal Defense Fund or LDF. Please note that LDF has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights.