RICHMOND, Va. — A Muslim civil rights group filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against a regional jail in Virginia, alleging that the jail has set up a Christians-only unit dubbed the "God Pod."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations says officials at the Riverside Regional Jail have set aside a housing pod exclusively for Christian inmates who promise to live in accordance with the Bible. The group says the Christian pod violates the Constitution by favoring one religion over others.
The lawsuit accuses jail officials of discriminating against Muslim inmates and others by preventing them from participating in programs that teach their faith and excluding them from the housing unit, nicknamed the "God Pod" by inmates.
Jail officials did not immediately respond to a call and emails seeking comment.
Lena Masri, CAIR's national litigation director, said inmates told the group's attorneys that about 30 to 40 inmates have been moved into the pod since it was established several weeks ago. Masri said a flier posted in the jail described the "Life Learning Program" as a program conducted by chaplains with the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, a group that says on its website that it has chaplains providing Bible-based programs in 22 states.
Joe Collins, the senior chaplain at Riverside who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to a call and email seeking comment.
Masri said the lawsuit filed Wednesday adds claims to a suit filed earlier this year by an inmate who alleged that Muslims were not provided food before the morning prayer so those observing the Ramadan fast were not able to eat before beginning their fast. Masri said other Muslim inmates have complained that they have not had access to regular Islamic classes at the jail.
"You have a state entity that is endorsing and promoting Christianity over other religions, so Riverside has unlawfully sent a message of favoring Christianity over other religions, while at the same time actively preventing other faith groups — including Muslims — from practicing their own faith," Masri said.
The lawsuit contends that the Christian pod is unconstitutional on several fronts, including violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion or unduly favoring one religion over another. It asks for an injunction to order the jail to dismantle the pod and to provide Muslim inmates with access to Islamic programming and adequate nutrition during Ramadan.
The flier posted in the jail said the Life Learning Program is open to inmates "of any faith group."
"The purpose of this program is to give you the opportunity to learn Biblical-based life-skills and put them into practice so you may experience lasting change in your life," it states.
Gadeir Abbas, a senior litigation attorney for CAIR, said the program is open only to those who want to study the Bible and live in accordance with the Bible.
"So really, it isn't open to inmates of all faiths or it is only open to inmates of other faiths who are looking to convert to Christianity," Abbas said.