Strip search by trans guard violated inmate’s religious beliefs: court

A strip search of a Muslim prisoner involving a transgender guard violated his religious beliefs, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The trans guard oversaw a strip search of Rufus West, an inmate at the Green Bay Correctional Facility in Allouez, Wisconsin, in 2016. The searches involve a guard executing him while another observed. West is subject to searches “when leaving and re-entering the prison, during closings, before and after stranger visits and certain other movements within the facility, and whenever directed by a guard prison,” notes the U.S. Court of Appeals decision. for the seventh circuit.

West objected to the search on religious grounds, as his faith requires that he not appear naked in front of members of the opposite sex except his wife – and he considers a trans man to be a member of the opposite sex. He has asked for an exemption from what he sees as ‘male-to-male strip searches’ in the future, but prison officials have denied this and said he will be disciplined if he does. opposed again. He sued, naming the prison warden and various other corrections officials.

A federal district judge dismissed West’s lawsuit, saying there had only been one “cross-search” and it was unclear if and when more would take place. The judge also said preventing a trans guard from participating in the search would be discriminatory.

A panel of three Seventh Circuit judges issued a ruling on Friday reversing that ruling. “A prisoner’s right to be free from highly invasive intrusions into their privacy by prison staff of the opposite sex – whether for religious or privacy reasons – does not change based on transgender status. of a caretaker,” Judge Diane Sykes wrote.

She said barring a trans guard from such searches would not be discrimination, even though the US Supreme Court has ruled that anti-trans discrimination amounts to sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. of 1964. Preventing the guard, Isaac Buhle, from making or observing the searches would not change the terms of his employment, Sykes wrote.

Even if that were the case, she said, “Title VII permits sex-based distinctions in employment where sex” is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary for the normal operation of the business. . [a] a particular company or business. »

She sent the case back to the district court for an injunction against future searches, whether by cisgender women or trans men. She also said the district court should consider West’s claim that the search was a violation of the ban on unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

West was convicted of armed robbery and possession of a firearm by a felon in Milwaukee in 1995, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. He’s now 51 and slated for release in 2024.

Ruth R. Culp