WASHINGTON -- After the Supreme Court ruled last month that for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby should be considered "persons" under a law intended to protect religious liberties, the Obama administration said this week that Guantanamo detainees should not be.
As "nonresident aliens outside the United States sovereign territory," Guantanamo detainees "are not protected person[s] within the meaning and scope" of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Justice Department lawyers argued in a filing on Tuesday evening.
The government lawyers were responding to an emergency request from attorneys for Guantanamo detainees asking a federal judge to allow their clients to pray communally during Ramadan, a month-long observance that is already underway. Lawyers with the human rights group Reprieve had pointed to the Supreme Court's recent decision in the Hobby Lobby case. They argued that ruling "makes clear that all persons -- human and corporate, citizen and foreigner, resident and alien -- enjoy the special religious free exercise protections of the RFRA."
Justice Department lawyers disagreed, saying that the Supreme Court has "never addressed whether unprivileged enemy belligerents detained overseas during a period of ongoing hostilities are 'persons' to whom RFRA applies." Congress never intended that law to cover "enemy belligerents detained overseas," they wrote.
Though RFRA was passed in 1993, long before detainees arrived in Guantanamo in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the government argued that "Congress did not intend to extend RFRA to Guantanamo Bay" and urged the lower court to rule that "RFRA does not apply to the actions of the military officials charged with detaining the unprivileged enemy belligerents at Guantanamo Bay."
A lawyer for the detainees said the government needs to recognize that Guantanamo detainees are people, too.
"It is staggering that the Obama administration is prepared to argue that Guantanamo prisoners aren't people, while accepting that corporations are," Cori Crider, an attorney for Reprieve, said in a statement. "I fail to see how the President can stand up and claim Guantánamo is a scandal while his lawyers call detainees non-persons in court. If the President is serious about closing this prison, he could start by recognizing that its inmates are people -- most of whom have been cleared by his own Government."
Both sides will make their arguments before a federal judge in Washington on Thursday morning. Read the government's filing below.