Daniel Negusie, an Eritrean Christian, was imprisoned in inhumane conditions for his refusal to serve in his country’s military. While in prison, he was punished and threatened with death for his conversion to Christianity. After two years of imprisonment, he was made a guard and threatened with more punishment if he did not carry out his duties as a guard. However, Negusie disobeyed orders to inflict violent punishment on prisoners, allowed prisoners to take showers, and sneaked basic amenities to prisoners. After two more years, he was able to flee the prison and the country, hiding in a container on a ship bound for the United States.
However, upon arriving at a U.S. port, he was denied asylum because, as a prison guard, he “assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of others.” The U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals agreed, saying “the fact that [Negusie] was compelled to participate as a prison guard, and may not have actively tortured or mistreated anyone, is immaterial.”
The case went before the Fifth Circuit Court in Louisiana and ultimately the Supreme Court, where Becket created and led a coalition of religious and human rights organizations which filed an amicus brief in his support. The brief argued that Mr. Negusie should not be punished for acting as a guard, since he was forced to do so as a part of his punishment. This was a crime committed against Negusie, not by Negusie. Becket argued that it is common for thug regimes to set believers against one another and alienate the religious from their consciences, a form of persecution the U.S. must condemn.
The Supreme Court sided with Becket and Mr. Negusie, ordering the lower court to rethink its decision.
Becket’s brief was co-signed by a range of human rights organizations that included the American Islamic Congress, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), China Aid Association, the Dalit Freedom Network, the Hindu American Foundation, the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Human Dignity International, the Institute for Global Engagement, The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Jubilee Campaign, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, Open Doors USA, the Queens Federation of Churches, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and United Sikhs.
Negusie was represented by Mayor Brown LLP; Yale Law School Supreme Court Clinic.
In a case challenging the constitutionality of a government school aid program as applied to parochial schools, the Supreme Court reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which had found that the program violated the Establishment Clause.
Justice Thomas’s plurality opinion (joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Kennedy) relied on the Becket Fund’s amicus brief, which described the anti-Catholic animus motivating state Blaine Amendments (forbidding state funds from supporting religious institutions).
In rejecting a method of analyzing an Establishment Clause challenge by asking whether the benefitted institution is “pervasively sectarian,” Justice Thomas’s opinion echoed the sentiments of Becket’s amicus brief: “hostility to aid to pervasively sectarian schools has a shameful pedigree that we do not hesitate to disavow” and “[t]his doctrine, born of bigotry, should be buried now.”
Michael McConnell was counsel in this case.