A federal appeals court has ruled that a Wisconsin prison must exempt a Muslim inmate from strip searches by a transgender male guard whom the prisoner said violated his faith.
In a ruling published this month, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit found the Green Bay Correctional Institution should have heeded inmate Rufus West’s religious objections.
West argued in a lawsuit that the prison’s insistence on allowing a guard “whose biological sex is observably female” to view him naked violated Sharia law and state regulations against cross-sex strip searches.
Writing for the panel, Chief Judge Diane Sykes said the prison must exempt West from such searches in the future under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIP).
In reversing a lower court ruling, Chief Judge Sykes also found that West can pursue his claim that the 2016 incident violated his right to freedom from unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment.
“There’s no dispute that his objection to cross-sex strip searches is both religious in nature and sincere,” wrote the chief judge, a Bush appointee. “The prison has substantially burdened his religious exercise by requiring him to either submit to cross-sex strip searches in violation of his faith or face discipline.”
Her opinion cited the Supreme Court decision in Holt v. Hobbs as a precedent. In that 2015 case, the high court unanimously ruled that an Arkansas prison unlawfully violated a Muslim inmate’s beliefs by shaving his beard.
According to West’s lawsuit, the Green Bay prison refused to exempt him from the strip searches and told him to get used to it if he complained again.
Correctional officers typically conduct strip searches when an inmate leaves or enters a prison, before some movements inside a prison, before and after visits from outsiders, and during lockdowns.
Under regulations that require a witness to the procedure, transgender guard Isaac Buhle participated in the 2016 strip search of West as an observer.
In March 2020, U.S. District Judge Pamela Pepper dismissed West’s case because his religious conviction did not outweigh Mr. Buhle’s right to identify as a man and be treated as such in the workplace.
Throughout his incarceration, the 51-year-old West has filed multiple lawsuits alleging mistreatment by the prison system.
Also known as Muslim Mansa Lutalo Iyapo, West is serving a 29-year sentence for a conviction on charges of armed robbery and being a felon with a gun. He is due for a 2024 release.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice did not respond Monday to a request for comment. Several LGBTQ rights groups also did not respond to requests.