New York Inmates File Lawsuit Over Being Barred From Viewing Solar Eclipse Due To Prison Lockdowns

Six New York inmates have filed a lawsuit against the state’s corrections department after the department announced a statewide prison lockdown on April 8 that would bar them from seeing the total solar eclipse, which they allege violates their religious freedom. 

The six plaintiffs—of which there is a Christian, Muslim, Santerian and atheist—have each “expressed a sincerely held religious belief that April’s solar eclipse is a religious event that they must witness and reflect on to observe their faiths,” the complaint says. 

The case was filed in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of New York court on March 29. The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) told TIME it does not comment on pending litigation.

DOCCS Acting Commissioner Daniel F. Martuscello III previously issued a memo saying that all 44 prisons in the state would have to remain in their housing units from 2 to 5 p.m. on April 8. Of that group, 23 facilities that fall in the path of totality were directed to be closed to visitation all day. A partial eclipse is expected to begin shortly after 2 p.m., with totality starting at 3:18 p.m. in upstate New York, .

Plaintiff Jeremy Zielinski, an atheist, says that he requested special permission to view the eclipse. His initial request was granted but later revoked because of the lockdown order, he says in the lawsuit. 

“Mr. Zielinski firmly believes that observing the solar eclipse with people of different faiths is crucial to practicing his own faith because it is a central aspect of atheism to celebrate common humanity and bring people together to encourage people to find common ground,” the complaint reads. 

The DOCCS says the lockdown is a “proactive approach to ensure the safety” of the prisoners and staff. “Recognizing the surge of visitors expected in the region during the eclipse, the Department is working with the New York State Eclipse Interagency Task Force to ensure DOCCS visitors and staff are not stuck in traffic or otherwise stranded,” a DOCCS spokesperson told TIME. “For this reason, visitation will be suspended at all DOCCS facilities in the path of totality on Monday, April 8, 2024 and will resume on Tuesday, April 9.”

The department will also be providing solar eclipse glasses to staff and inmates who may be able to view the eclipse from their unit. 

DOCCS added that all religious requests related to the eclipse are currently under review.