A suburban Muslim man suing the U.S. government over his terrorist status has an unlikely ally in the legal fight: Quakers.
The American Friends Service Committee, a national Quaker organization, joined Muhammad Salah earlier this month in a federal lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of economic and other restrictions placed on the Bridgeview resident since the U.S. government labeled him a "specially designated terrorist."
The group, as well as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, allege in the suit that the unprecedented restrictions infringe on their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association by forbidding any assistance to Salah.
"One of our principle tenets is we work in partnership with the most vulnerable," said Michael McConnell, Midwest regional director for the Quaker group. "Not being able to work in some kind of partnership or in connection with Muhammad Salah is against our core principles, which are based on Quaker principles of equality. The American Friends Service Committee believes everyone is of God, and because of that there is that divine spark that we can connect with in any person."
The lawsuit is the latest example of a religious organization suing the government over laws or regulations it believes oppress liberties. Earlier this year, Catholic and evangelical institutions sued the Obama administration for requiring them to offer health insurance that covers the cost of contraception — to be sure a far different issue than the Quakers raised.
The lawsuit is an unusual tactic for Quakers, who generally avoid litigation. But when its calls went unreturned from the U.S. Treasury Department, McConnell said, the group thought it had no choice.
"We'd much rather talk with people and try to resolve conflicts outside the court system," he said.
Spokesmen for the U.S. Treasury and Justice departments did not return calls.
Salah, 59, a U.S. citizen of Palestinian descent, was acquitted by a federal jury in 2007 of conspiring to support Hamas extremists but sentenced to 21 months in prison for lying under oath in written answers he gave in a lawsuit filed by the family of an American student killed in a Hamas shooting in Israel. He was released in 2009.
Since the U.S. government designated him as a terrorist in 1995 while he was incarcerated in an Israeli military prison, Salah has been prohibited from buying virtually anything — including food and clothing, according to his lawsuit. He also cannot make regular donations to charity — called "zakat" — infringing on his religious liberty, his lawyers argue. It also is a crime for U.S. citizens and groups to provide him anything, even medical services, they said.
His attorneys think he is the only resident U.S. citizen living under such harsh restrictions.
David Cole, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University in Washington and a member of Salah's legal team, said the impact on groups such as the Quakers shows how unfair regulations can damage even others.
"Their participation in the case … illustrates the extraordinary breadth of the legal straitjacket that has been put on Muhammad Salah," Cole said.
While free to advocate on Salah's behalf without consulting him, Quakers want to be able to communicate or partner with him so their advocacy does not unintentionally undermine his cause.
"We're not going to go into a community without talking to the people involved," McConnell said. "We're not the kind of model that says, 'We've got the answers. We're going to come in and implement it.' We talk to folks most affected."
Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, are Christians whose traditions date to the mid-17th century and are best known for their pacifist theology. But they consider equality to be just as important a principle, McConnell said.
"We have this tenet in our belief that no one is our enemy and we need to reach across and try to understand our opponents," he said. "We've been in places where the United States has felt these are our enemies. We've always tried to reach out because to us they're people first."
On Thursday, Quakers and other people of faith marched outside the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse while calling for an end to a Justice Department investigation of 23 anti-war activists whose homes and offices in Chicago, Minnesota and Michigan were raided two years ago.
"One has the right or the liberty to be faithful to one's conscience," said Newland Smith, who helped organize the rally and has been active in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago's peace and justice committee for years. "Because of this war on terror, there's always been a tension between honoring civil liberties and also providing security. I'm aware of that. But I still think Americans do have a right to stand up and speak."