Liberty advocates back ‘John Does’

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A religious-freedom advocacy group yesterday asked a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit against airline passengers who reported suspicious behavior of a group of Muslim imams that resulted in their removal from a US Airways flight.

The amicus brief by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota was filed on behalf of “John Doe” passengers who are included in a lawsuit against the airline and the Minneapolis Metropolitan Airports Commission.

“The case against the John Does should be dismissed because no law could or should be construed to punish them for reporting a possible terrorist attack to airline authorities,” the Becket Fund, a nonprofit legal organization that litigates religious-liberty cases, said in the court filing.

“These citizens attempted to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their fellow passengers. For this, they are dragged into federal court and threatened with humiliation, expense, and liability,” the papers said. “This harassment is nothing less than legal terrorism — an attempt to change public behavior by threatening to impoverish and destroy at random the lives of those whom plaintiffs see as their enemies. These claims should not be entertained.”

In response to the lawsuit, lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week passed a measure giving airline passengers legal immunity from being sued for reporting suspicious behavior. President Bush said he will sign the bill once it reaches his desk.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), said he “does not think this legislation would prevent that lawsuit because there is a good faith provision in the legislation.”

“And to determine whether the reports are made in good faith, you might still have to ask them in a court of law,” Mr. Hooper said on MSNBC.

The men prayed loudly before boarding the November flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix, formed seating patterns that officials said mirrored those of the September 11 hijackers, asked for unneeded seat-belt extenders and criticized President Bush and the war in Iraq.

The imams said they were victims of discrimination because they prayed before the flight. They are asking for an unspecified amount of damages.

“We have never before in our history opposed anyone else’s claim of religious freedom,” the Becket Fund said in the court papers. “Nevertheless, we are appalled at the tactics employed in this case.”

“The plaintiffs should not attempt — nor should this court permit them — to hijack federal courts to make an essentially political statement,” the court papers said.

Omar Mohammedi, the imams’ attorney, did not respond to a request for comment. A second attorney for the imams told Judge Ann Montgomery during a hearing Tuesday, “We don’t contemplate naming any private passenger as a defendant,” KSTP-TV in Minneapolis reported.

Gerard Nolting, the lawyer who represents one of the “John Doe” passengers, called the statement “meaningless and disingenuous” because “tomorrow they may contemplate adding the passengers” by name.

“If they name my client, I will fight them tooth and nail,” Mr. Nolting said.

Tuesday’s hearing was to amend the complaint to add US Airways employees as individual defendants. A motion to dismiss the case is set for Aug. 21.

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