Fort Worth prison chaplain claims qualified immunity in lawsuit

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A federal prison chaplain accused of discriminating against non-Catholic believers said he should be protected from trial because he is entitled to qualified immunity.

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A federal prison chaplain accused of discriminating against non-Catholic believers said he should be protected from trial because he is entitled to qualified immunity.

Michael Onuh, the Catholic chaplain of Carswell FMC Prison in Fort Worth, was sued by Casey Campbell, a Protestant prison chaplain, in 2019. The lawsuit accuses Onuh of subjecting colleagues and inmates to religious discrimination and harassment for seven years while the Federal Bureau of Prisons complaints ignored.

The Prisons Office declined to answer questions from the Star-Telegram, citing the ongoing trial. The Diocese of Fort Worth does not have jurisdiction over federal prison chaplains, according to a spokesperson. Onuh could not be reached for comment.

Qualified immunity is a legal defense that law enforcement and other government officials may raise in response to lawsuits related to civil rights violations. The defense has been criticized in recent years over the fatal police shootings.

Request qualified immunity

Onuh argues that since he is employed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, he is a government employee and is entitled to qualified immunity.

To qualify for qualified immunity, a defendant must prove that the right he is accused of having violated was not clearly established at the time of the complaint. They must also show that a reasonable official would not have understood that what they were doing was a violation of rights.

Onuh claims that none of these requirements were met by Campbell’s trial.

Campbell’s problems with Onuh began in 2012 when the Catholic chaplain began making derogatory remarks about Protestant chaplains. Onuh also refused to escort non-Catholic volunteers to prison as his job demanded and refused to supervise non-Catholic activities, leaving non-Catholic chaplains with extra work, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says many others at FMC Carswell, including fellow chaplains, other staff, volunteers, visitors and prisoners have also complained about Onuh’s behavior for more than four years.

A woman incarcerated since 2016 told the Star-Telegram that she was effectively forced to stop practicing her Catholic faith because she faced discrimination as well as “racist comments, degrading accusations, backbiting and total contempt for myself and for others ”of Onuh.

Campbell intensified its complaints in 2017 and filed with the BOP Equal Employment Opportunities Office. Two years later, an investigation determined that Campbell suffered from religious discrimination and was eligible for compensation.

Campbell filed a complaint after the EEO ruling.

Campbell argued that Onuh knew his behavior was illegal because the BOP and his supervisors told him it was. He says the EEO ruling in favor of Campbell proves this argument.

Campbell’s lawyers in a court file also point out that Onuh never denied his behavior in the qualified immunity request.

“He does not dispute that he engaged in the years of religious discrimination and harassment he inflicted on Casey Campbell,” who lead his co-accused, the Attorney General of the United States has already sentenced, ”indicates the file.

Another outcry

Pamela Mills, a Catholic woman formerly incarcerated in Carswell, said in the lawsuit that she was in prison when Onuh started working there in 2012.

Shortly after arriving, Mills said he asked her if she had spoken with the other prison chaplain. When she said yes, Onuh told her Campbell was a “snotty young chaplain who makes a joke about religion,” she testified.

When she told Onuh that she would continue to work with all the chaplains and religions in the prison, which was her job as a chaplain clerk, Onuh told her that she was “not a real one. Catholic ”, according to his testimony. She said he stopped talking to her and ignored her while she was working.

Mills felt rejected and betrayed by Onuh, her priest, so much so that she did not attend Catholic mass during her final year at FMC Carswell, and she attended other church services. during this period, “according to a court record in the trial.

She said she also “saw him at mass publicly intimidating, embarrassing and humiliating those who made him angry, even denying the sacrament of Communion to Catholics who in one way or another , did not meet his expectations “.

She is the second woman incarcerated in Carswell who has filed public complaints against Onuh. Two other chaplains also filed EEO complaints against the chaplain, according to the lawsuit.

Judge Mark Pittman has yet to rule on Onuh’s request for qualified immunity.

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Nichole Manna is an award-winning investigative reporter for the Star-Telegram who focuses on criminal justice. Before moving to Fort Worth in July 2018, she was a reporter for newspapers in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska and Kansas. She enjoys spending time with her two dogs, Opie and Oliver. You can send tips and book suggestions to [email protected] or on Twitter @NicholeManna.

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