New York inmates are suing to watch the solar eclipse

The men say preventing them from seeing the eclipse violates religious rights.

April 2, 2024, 12:43 PM

Inmates in a New York prison have filed a lawsuit after the state's Department of Corrections announced a lockdown that would prevent them from watching next week's total solar eclipse.

The six men, who are incarcerated at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility, about two hours north of New York City, argued in their lawsuit that barring them from seeing the rare astronomical event would violate their constitutional religious rights.

The plaintiffs come from a variety of religious backgrounds -- a Muslim, a Baptist, a Seventh-Day Adventist, two who practice Santería and one atheist -- but each has "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 states.

The solar eclipse, which will take place Monday afternoon, was last seen in the U.S. in 2017 and one won't be visible in the country again until 2044.

"A solar eclipse is a rare, natural phenomenon with great religious significance to many," it states, noting the specific relevance of the event to the inmates' varying faiths.

One of the inmates, Jeremy Zielinski, initially requested and was granted official permission to view the eclipse, which he said was of great significance to him as an atheist due to its celebration of "science and reason," according to the lawsuit. But when the lockdown was announced, his permission was revoked, he claims.

PHOTO: The moon transits the sun during the 2017 total solar eclipse as seen from Weiser, Idaho.
The moon transits the sun during the 2017 total solar eclipse as seen from Weiser, Idaho.
Kyle Green/Idaho Statesman/Tribune News Service via Getty Images, FILE

"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 states.

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The Seventh-Day Adventist, David Haigh, told New York news outlet Hell Gate how meaningful it would be for him to see the eclipse.

"It will be 20 years before another opportunity like this exists," he said. "I don't believe that just because I am incarcerated that I should be denied this opportunity, especially when this eclipse is scheduled to happen during normal outside recreation time."

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections told ABC News they do not comment on pending litigation, but said the lockdown was intended to "ensure the safety" of inmates and prison staff.

Eclipse safety glasses will still be distributed for those at prisons in the path of totality "in the event they will be able to view the eclipse from their assigned work location or housing units," the spokesperson said.

"Religious requests related to viewing the eclipse are currently under review," he added.

"Eclipse Across America," will air live Monday, April 8, beginning at 2 p.m. ET on ABC, ABC News Live, National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo WILD, Disney+ and Hulu as well as network social media platforms.

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