8th Circuit: Trial court must consider RFRA challenges to contempt citations

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In United States v. Ali, (8th Cir., June 4, 2012), the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated 19 criminal contempt citations issued by a Minnesota federal district court against a Muslim defendant who, for religious reasons, refused to stand when the court convened and recessed.  The disputed conduct occurred during defendant’s trial for providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. After defendant failed to stand at the status conference for her case, the trial court had issued a specific order requiring all parties to follow the Rules of Decorum set forth by the Court.  The 8th Circuit held that the district court, in rejecting defendant’s challenge to the order, had considered her 1st Amendment challenges, but had failed to consider her challenges under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act:

Because the district court applied only a First Amendment analysis, it never evaluated whether the pretrial order was  the least restrictive means to achieve a compelling government interest, as required by RFRA.

The 8th Circuit, however, upheld defendant’s criminal contempt conviction on the first contempt citation against her, because she had at that point disobeyed the trial court’s order without formally challenging it. AP reports on the decision.