Religious and Transgender Rights Collide in Wisconsin Prison Strip-Search Case

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A case in which a devout Muslim prison inmate objected to being strip-searched by a transgender  prison guard who identifies as male, but who he considered female, because of his religious beliefs is testing what Wisconsin considers more important: the inmate’s religious beliefs or the guard’s right to be treated the same as his cisgender colleagues, reports the Courthouse News Service. The inmate, Rufus West, also known as Muslim Mansa Lutalo Iyapo, believes exposing his genitals to someone he considers a woman to whom he is not married will condemn him to divine punishment.

After being strip-searched in front of prison guard Isaac Buhle, who identifies as male, in 2016, and later told that he would have to make peace with being strip-searched by him in the future, West filed a federal lawsuit alleging the prison had violated his First, Fourth, Eighth, and 14th Amendment rights, as well as the federal Department of Correction’s own rules. District Judge Pamela Pepper rejected the case on the grounds that West’s religious conviction that Buhle was female did not outweigh Buhle’s right to identify as a man and be treated as such in his workplace. West’s lawyer Nicholas Gowen conceded that Buhle not being allowed to strip-search West would differentiate him from his cisgender colleagues. But he argued that this differentiation was of minor importance compared to the harm being done to West’s religious liberties, and due to the power differential between an inmate and a prison guard. Gowen also pointed out that the Wisconsin Department of Corrections’ own rules prohibits cross-sex strip-searches.

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