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Judge Rules Government Can Target American Citizens Returning From Religious Conferences As Terrorists

Four days before one of the country’s most significant religious holidays, a federal judge in Buffalo has ruled the federal government can treat innocent American citizens as terrorists when returning to the United States from religious conferences.

In an opinion issued earlier today, Judge William Skretny dismissed a case brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of American citizens who were detained for up to 6 hours, interrogated, fingerprinted, and photographed by border authorities when they returned from a large, mainstream Islamic conference that took place last December in Toronto, Canada. Under the ruling, the government is free to repeat its actions this year for the same conference, which is scheduled to start tomorrow.

Noting that “[t]here is no information whatsoever to suggest, and the government does not contend, that Plaintiffs are anything other than law-abiding American citizens,” the court nonetheless held that the government was free to treat all of the plaintiffs as potential terrorists because the government had intelligence suggesting that people involved in terrorism might be attending an Islamic conference like the Toronto conference. On the basis of this information, the Department of Homeland Security directed border agents across the country to process as potential terrorists every single person they could identify as returning from an Islamic conference last December. The Toronto conference, which featured as speakers high-level Canadian political leaders and law-enforcement officials, was attended by over 10,000 people.

“As this decision demonstrates, we now are reaching a point in this country where the ‘war on terrorism’ has turned into a war on the constitution,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “With the recent disclosures about government spying on political activity, we no longer can trust our government to respect our most cherished traditions, including our right to religious freedom. It is hard to believe that a court would dismiss what the government did to innocent Americans as simply ‘unfortunate and understandably frustrating.’ It is also fundamentally unconstitutional and we are confident that the appeals court will ultimately vindicate their fundamental rights.”

NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, who is lead counsel on the case, said, “When law-abiding American citizens cannot attend religious conferences without being treated as terrorists by our government, our constitution and the most important values of our society are in peril. We will appeal this decision and vigorously pursue our claim that concerns about terrorism do not eradicate the constitutional rights of American citizens.”

Despite today’s ruling, several plaintiffs plan to attend the conference that starts tomorrow in Toronto. “I believe in religious freedom, and I will not allow the federal government to intimidate me out of that belief,” said plaintiff Hassan Shibley.

Other NYCLU attorneys working on the case are staff attorneys Udi Ofer and Corey Stoughton and cooperating attorney Michael Wishnie. Catherine Kim of the ACLU is also counsel on the case. They are assisted by students from the Allard K. Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School.

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