Last October, an Army reservist walked into a gun range in Oklahoma and asked to use the facilities. Moments later, he left without firing a single shot.
Such are the undisputed facts at the heart of a civil rights lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma. What those facts mean depends on who you ask.
The reservist, Raja’ee Fatihah, believes he was denied service because he is a practicing Muslim. The gun range owners, Chad and Nicole Neal, maintain they were merely trying to keep their customers safe.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Fatihah by attorneys affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for American-Islamic Relations, is just the latest piece of litigation in an acrimonious national debate on the relationship between the two prongs of the Constitution: Freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
It is also the most recent allegation of Islamophobia during an election season that has seen calls for a complete halt to Muslim immigration, the closing of mosques, and the creation of a registry of citizens who follow the Islamic faith.
At the center of Fatihah’s complaint is Save Yourself Survival and Tactical Gear, a shooting range in Oktaha, a town of less than 400 in Muskogee County, Oklahoma. The range first made headlines last July, when the Neals posted a sign declaring their property a “Muslim-free establishment.”
“I didn’t want any terrorists, or Muslims, cult, whatever you want to call them, training on my gun range,” Chad Neal, who said he was medically discharged from the Army after serving in Iraq, told Religion News Service at the time. “I know the Quran says about lying to infidels and killing infidels. I don’t want them practicing those religious beliefs on my range.”
News of the sign caught Fatihah’s attention. As a Muslim who was born and raised in Oklahoma and frequented gun ranges to maintain the marksmanship required of a reservist, he felt that he could help change the Neals’ views.
“I was aware that there was a sign up like that,” Fatihah told BuzzFeed News. “And that’s part of the reason why I went there, to give them a human face. I was trying to give them a personal relationship that would inform their views on Islam.”
And so, on Oct. 23, Fatihah drove up to Save Yourself, parked his car, and walked in. According to the complaint, Nicole Neal asked him to sign a liability waiver and to state his name, his address, and his driver’s license number.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly. And then Fatihah volunteered that he was Muslim.
Immediately afterwards, the complaint states, Nicole called Chad to the front desk. The two armed themselves with handguns and asked Fatitah if he was at the gun range to wage jihad against them.
“I tried to engage them in conversation to alleviate their fears, but it really didn’t work out,” Fatihah said. “The more we talked, they became more and more hostile.”
Eventually, Fatihah said, he felt unsafe and decided to leave the range.
Reached by phone, Chad Neal referred all questions to his attorney, Robert Muise of the American Freedom Law Center, an organization that describes itself as “the nation’s first truly authentic Judeo-Christian public interest law firm.”
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Muise said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the complaint because his clients had not yet been served with a copy. But he painted a very different picture of the events of Oct. 23.
According to Muise, Fatihah showed up at the outdoor gun range on a day when “it was pouring rain” and shooting would have been impossible.
“He’s belligerent and confrontational,” Muise said of Fatihah. “He says he’s Muslim, he says he adheres to Sharia, and he’s got an AK-47 strapped on his back.”
The reservist’s demeanour made the Neals worry that he might try to hurt them, Muise said. They then ran a “background check” on Fatihah and found out he was affiliated with CAIR, which Muise called “a Hamas front-group” and “basically a terrorist organization.”
The discovery, Muise added, led the Neals to be concerned for their safety and so they asked Fatitah to come back another day.
“This is not about religious discrimination,” Muise said. “This is about public safety. The law does not require a gun range to train a person they believe to be a security risk. My client can refuse service to anyone they deem to be dangerous. In fact, they have a duty to the community to do so.”
Asked about Muise’s account, Fatihah said he was not confrontational, that he did not have an AK-47, and that it was merely a cloudy day. He confirmed that he sits on the board of the local chapter of CAIR, but said that his work with the nonprofit was “not relevant to whether they allow me to use the facilities.” His complaint states that he "does not adhere to any religion requiring, encouraging, or even allowing the murder of a fellow human being."
The "Muslim-free establishment" sign outside his client’s property, Muise said, was protected by freedom of speech and did not constitute religious discrimination. He pointed to a similar lawsuit brought by CAIR’s Florida chapter against the owner of a gun store who declared his shop a “Muslim-free zone” in a YouTube video.
The shop owner retained Muise’s firm and eventually got the lawsuit dismissed on the grounds that there was “insufficient alleged imminent harm.”
If the court rules in Fatihah's favor, he is asking for unspecified monetary damages, payment of his attorneys’ fees, and a permanent injunction that would prevent the Neals from refusing service to Muslims on the basis of their religion.
But Fatihah told BuzzFeed News the case, at its core, not about money, or even about this particular gun range. Instead, it's about the need to recognize Muslims as fully American and fully human.
“I volunteered to protect my country and I serve my community and my state in various other ways,” Fatihah, a state employee, said. “You never know who you are turning away with policies like this.”
For now, the complaint states, the sign stating that Muslims are not allowed on the shooting range remains taped to the door.
Fatihah was born in Tulsa County, Oklahoma. A previous version of this article misidentified the county.