Law Students Argue Prisoner’s Religious Liberty Case Before U.S. Court of Appeals

Law students from the University of St. Thomas law school’s federal appeals clinic defended a Muslim man’s religious freedom on April 12 before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, in what was the school’s sixth year in a row arguing a prisoner’s rights case before the court.

The case, Darrell Harris v. S. Escamilla, was argued by third-year law students Lindsey Rowland and Francine Kuplic, who worked on behalf of the school’s Appellate Clinic led by Professor Gregory Sisk. The appellate team began working on the case in the summer of 2017, writing opening and reply briefs over the course of several months.

The case was brought by Darrell Harris, a California state prisoner and leader of Muslim prisoners, whose Quran was desecrated by a correctional officer while Harris was away at vocational training. Four prisoner eyewitnesses report they saw the officer search Harris’s cell, seize his Quran, angrily throw it to the floor, stomp on it for the prisoners to see and kick it under the bed. Finding his most sacred possession on the floor when he returned, Harris was heartbroken and unable to continue his daily duty to read from the Quran because it had been desecrated. The prison rejected Harris’s internal administrative complaints.

The California Attorney General’s Office obtained a dismissal of Harris’s civil rights suit in U.S. District Court on summary judgment. The Court concluded that, although the episode was repugnant, it did not rise to the level of a Free Exercise violation under the First Amendment and that Harris had failed to give adequate prior notice to the prison of his Equal Protection Claim.

On appeal, the St. Thomas law school clinic contended that, when the government targets the religious for mistreatment, it is a per se violation of the Free Exercise Clause, regardless of any additional burden on religious exercise. Alternatively, they argued that Harris suffered a substantial burden by both the desecration of the Quran itself and by being deprived of use of the Quran for 10 days before a replacement was obtained.

St. Thomas law students Francine Kuplic and Lindsey Rowland at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.

Video of Rowland and Kuplic’s argument before a panel of three U.S. Court of Appeals judges is available online here.

The University of St. Thomas law school’s Appellate Clinic is a year-long course that charges students to study written and oral advocacy, appellate courts, appellate jurisdiction and the rules of appellate procedure. Clinical students represent a client pro bono under faculty supervision, briefing and arguing appellate cases on their behalf.