New York inmates say a prison lockdown for the eclipse violates religious freedom: Lawsuit


Inmates at a New York prison who are being prevented from witnessing next week's total solar eclipse have filed a lawsuit against the state corrections department, claiming that the decision violates their religious freedoms.

The celestial phenomenon, which has not passed over New York since 1925 and will not be seen again in the state until 2079, "is a significant religious event for people of many different faith backgrounds," according to the complaint, which was filed Friday in federal court in upstate New York.

However, New York corrections officials put a lockdown in place at its facilities for April 8, the day the eclipse will pass over a long stretch of North America, including New York, as the moon blots out the sun. Among them is the Woodbourne Correctional Facility, the prison in Woodbourne where six men of varying religious faiths jointly sued the corrections department over the policy.

The plaintiffs – a Baptist, a Muslim, a Seventh-Day Adventist, two practitioners of Santeria and an atheist – are asking a judge to order the corrections department to immediately rescind the lockdown memo and provide eclipse glasses to all inmates who wish to view the eclipse, as it did when a partial eclipse was visible in 2017 in New York.

"This should not be controversial and was previously allowed during the last solar eclipse viewable in New York State," the lawsuit stated, arguing that the lockdown is unconstitutional.

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New York officials announce prison lockdown for eclipse

New York is one of 13 states directly on the eclipse's path of totality, meaning that the moon's orbit will see it completely block the sun's disc on April 8 and usher in uncharacteristic darkness for a few minutes. The passage will also reveal the sun's elusive outermost layer known as the corona.

The astral event has been widely anticipated for months, if not years, and as a result is expected to draw a heavy influx of tourists and skygazers to areas directly in the path.

In response, Daniel Martuscello III, acting commissioner of New York's corrections department, issued a memo March 11 announcing that visitation would be canceled or restricted at about half of the department's facilities on the day of the eclipse. Citing prison security, Martuscello also announced the lockdown of all facilities from 2 to 5 p.m. on April 8 to prevent inmates from congregating during the eclipse.

The decision means that state prisons will operate on a holiday schedule during that time, which mandates that all inmates be confined to their their housing units except for emergency situations.

Thomas Mailey, a corrections department spokesperson, told USA TODAY that the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation. However, Mailey added that the department considers all requests for religious accommodations and that religious requests related to viewing the eclipse are under review.

Eclipses hold religious significance in many faiths

Civilizations throughout history have developed a spiritual reverence for the awe-inspiring nature of solar eclipses. The celestial events have come to be associated with the teachings of numerous world religions and are deeply rooted in myriad holy texts.

In Christianity, the darkness described in the Bible as accompanying Jesus’ crucifixion has been interpreted as an eclipse, while in Islam, sacred works similarly describe the passing of the Prophet Muhammad’s son.

A prayer is reserved for Muslims specifically for when an eclipse occurs, even if it takes place during hours when prayer is normally avoided, according to the lawsuit. Some Christians, meanwhile, believe in observing the eclipse together to worship the God who they believe created both the sun and moon.

Practitioners of Santeria trace historical ties to the Yoruba traditional religion, whose people have been reported to perform a chanting ritual during a solar eclipse.

For atheists, an eclipse may not be a time for worship, but it's still a time to marvel about the natural wonders of the universe, the lawsuit contends.

"For some, this event might simply be another interesting natural phenomenon to admire," according to the lawsuit. "But for many, this eclipse is a moment of monumental religious significance that cannot be overlooked or dismissed out of hand."

'These inmates are asking for the most human of things'

Before the statewide prison lockdown was issued, one of the named plaintiffs, an atheist, received special permission last month to view the eclipse using glasses that would be provided by the state.

Prison officials ultimately denied permission to him and four other plaintiffs to be exempt from the lockdown order, citing its own calendar that did not list the event as a holy day. A sixth inmate said he never received a response, according to the lawsuit.

The sun begins to peek from behind the moon at the end of the total eclipse in 2017.
The sun begins to peek from behind the moon at the end of the total eclipse in 2017.

The corrections department ordered solar eclipse glasses that it plans to distribute at its facilities on the path of totality to staff and inmates whose housing units have windows, Mailey told USA TODAY.

The lawsuit contends that the decision "unevenly" allows some inmates to view the eclipse "while others are denied that right." The eclipse will pass through New York at a time that is typically reserved for outdoor recreation, and the six plaintiffs are asking for a judge to order the prison to allow them to congregate in the prison yard as usual.

The corrections department has until April 22 to provide its answer to the complaint, but the plaintiffs and their attorneys are hoping the issue is resolved faster – within a week, to be exact.

"These inmates are asking for the most human of things: to gather and celebrate something that is greater than themselves. It is meant to be a time of reflection and redemption," according to the lawsuit. "Two worthy causes for individuals who are serving time and will hopefully one day be given the opportunity to re-join society."

Eric Lagatta covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach him at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New York prison lockdown during eclipse prompts lawsuit from inmates