Sunday, February 17, 2008

Recent Prisoner Free Exercise Litigation

In Figel v. Overton, (6th Cir., Feb. 6, 2008), the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court that prison officials could not claim qualified immunity in a case arising after RLUIPA was enacted. Even though the Supreme Court had not yet ruled on its constitutionality, RLUIPA became clearly established law when it was signed. An erroneous 6th Circuit decision on the constitutionality of RLUIPA came after the conduct at issue in the case.

In Salaam v. McKee, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9770 (WD MI, Feb. 11, 2008), a federal district court adopted a magistrate's report rejecting a complaint that prison authorities scheduled Muslim Jumu'ah services at a time that is inappropriate under Islamic law. The magistrate had concluded that the service schedule was motivated by a compelling governmental interest in separating prisoners of different security levels.

In Winford v. Frank, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9907 (ED WI, Feb. 8, 2008), a court rejected free exercise claims by a prisoner who was a Satanist and who was denied access to several requested Satanic religious books. The court found that plaintiff had not shown he was unable to practice Satanism without these publications, and that there were legitimate safety and security reasons for denying him the books.

In Jebril v. Joslin, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10611 (SD TX, Feb. 12, 2008), a Texas federal district court rejected a prisoner's claim that his right to practice his Muslim faith was infringed by authorities' labeling him a terrorist and subjecting him to increased scrutiny. Plaintiff, however, was permitted to move ahead with his claim that requiring that all inmates wear their pants uncuffed infringed his free exercise of religion. The court also permitted him to move ahead with his claim that he was harassed in retaliation for practicing his faith.

Van Wyhe v. Reisch, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10779 (D SD, Feb. 13, 2008), involved a claim by a prisoner that he was denied his rights under the 1st Amendment and RLUIPA when he was taken off a kosher diet for 30 days as a sanction for consuming non-kosher food. A South Dakota federal district court granted summary judgment to defendants on several claims, but permitted plaintiff to move ahead with his claim against some of the defendants under RLUIPA. It held however that plaintiff would be limited to recovering nominal monetary damages.

In Carmony v. County of Sacramento, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11137, February 13, 2008, Decided, (ED CA, Feb. 14, 2008), a California federal magistrate judge rejected an inmate's complaint that his free exercise rights were violated when he was not permitted to attend Bible study classes. The court concluded that plaintiff's religious beliefs were not sincerely held. He testified that he wished to attend to relieve his boredom. Also he was in court at most times when the classes were held.

In Beasley v. Kontek, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10747, (ND OH, Jan. 8, 2008), an Ohio federal district court denied a motion for appointment of counsel and a motion to extend time to file an appellate brief by a prisoner who became an Orthodox Jew while in prison and wanted to wear a beard and sidelocks. In an earlier decision in the case, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 96302 (ND OH, Nov. 5, 2007), the court had already held that plaintiff's claim for injunctive relief was moot because of a change in the prison's grooming policy and that plaintiff had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. (Also see prior related posting.)

Meanwhile, Saturday's New York Times reports on a pending religious freedom lawsuit brought by a Hasidic rabbi serving a sentence for fraud at a federal penitentiary in Otisville, NY. Plaintiff wants the Bureau of Prisons to change its policy on where inmates can pray. He argues that his cell, which contains a toilet, is an unclean place under Jewish law for him to pray. He says that Muslims and Buddhists have similar beliefs. Federal prisoners are not permitted to pray in common spaces, and prison chapels are usually not open enough hours to accommodate prisoners who need to pray several times each day. Prison chaplain authorities say that prayers are banned from common areas because they could be threatening to other prisoners, or could make them feel uncomfortable.