BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A judge Thursday refused to prohibit U.S. border officers from conducting potentially lengthy security checks on Muslim-Americans on their way home from a religious conference in Canada that begins Friday.
The New York Civil Liberties Union sought the court action on behalf of five New York residents who were among dozens of people fingerprinted, photographed, questioned and delayed for up to six hours at the border following last year's "Reviving the Islamic Spirit" convention in Toronto.
U.S. District Judge William Skretny, while characterizing last year's stops as "understandably frustrating," disagreed with the NYCLU's contention that they violated the group's constitutional rights to practice religion and avoid unlawful searches.
"Plaintiffs were delayed for an extended period of time and subjected to unexplained inspection techniques that were inconvenient and made them feel uncomfortable," Skretny wrote. "The government readily admits that plaintiffs' experience at the border was not ideal ... As unfortunate as this incident may have been, I find that it was not unconstitutional."
The NYCLU sought the injunction preventing similar inspections based solely on attendance at this year's conference as part of a lawsuit that also sought the destruction of any personal information collected during the stops.
In addition to denying the injunction, Skretny dismissed the case altogether.
NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman promised an appeal, saying a decision allowing such searches "without an iota of suspicion of any wrongdoing" could not be allowed to stand.
"We're shocked that the court has approved this unprecedented expansion of government authority to treat U.S. citizens as terrorists simply because they exercise their fundamental right to attend a religious conference," Lieberman said.
Homeland Security officials said the heightened inspections last year were the result of intelligence that indicated people associated with terrorism planned to attend the Toronto conference, which drew about 10,000 people, or others like it.
Customs and Border Protection "had reason to believe that these conferences would serve as meeting points for terrorists to exchange ideas and documents, coordinate operations, and raise funds intended for terrorist activities," Skretny wrote. He said the fingerprinting, photographing and vehicle searches were necessary to verify that those crossing the border were not attempting to "use the conference as cover."
Skretny noted that the government did not contend that the plaintiffs were anything other than law-abiding citizens.
At a hearing before Skretny last week, Justice Department attorney Anthony Coppolino said policy changes would subject fewer people to fingerprinting in the future and help to prevent the lengthy backups encountered last year. He said a staffing shortage at the border, the overnight crossing of a large number of people at once and added checks due to the conference-related intelligence had combined to create the delays.
He would not say whether authorities had terrorist concerns about this year's gathering, scheduled for Dec. 23-29.
Plaintiff Hassan Shibly, 19, said he would attend the convention despite the ruling. "I believe in religious freedom, and I will not allow the federal government to intimidate me out of that belief," he said.
Charles Miller, a DOJ spokesman, said the department was pleased with Thursday's ruling.
On the Net:
Reviving the Islamic Spirit Convention: http://revivingtheislamicspirit.com