Saturday, March 07, 2015

Applying Holt v. Hobbs To A Complex Case-- The Demands of a Transgender Native American Inmate

A fascinating decision handed down by an Idaho federal district court last week shows the complexity faced by prisons in attempting to applying the U.S. Supreme Court's January RLUIPA decision in Holt v. Hobbs.  In Stover v. Corrections Corporation of America, (D ID, Feb. 27, 2015), the court was faced with demands by a Native American male-to-female transgender prisoner for use of the prison's sweat lodge for religious purposes.  According to the court:
Although Plaintiff receives female hormone therapy and has developed feminine characteristics such as breasts, she is incarcerated in a men’s prison because she remains anatomically male—she has not had sex reassignment surgery.
Defendants conceded that under RLUIPA barring plaintiff from engaging in a sweating ceremony is a substantial burden on the exercise of her Native American religious beliefs. According to the court:
Defendants offer two explanations for their decision to prohibit Plaintiff from using the sweat lodge to practice her religion. First, they argue that prohibiting Plaintiff from using the lodge is necessary to ensure her safety. The Court does not doubt that prohibiting Plaintiff from using the sweat lodge in the company of male inmates is justified by the compelling governmental interest of keeping Plaintiff safe from physical or sexual assault..... [I]nmates are generally not fully clothed in the sweat lodge, and prison staff cannot observe the inside of the lodge. Plaintiff has already been a victim of several sexual assaults in prison. As a transgender prisoner with feminine characteristics such as breasts, Plaintiff would be in serious and immediate danger if she were to sweat with the male inmates in the sweat lodge at the men’s prison in which she is confined. Ensuring a vulnerable prisoner’s safety is obviously a compelling governmental interest.
However the court was not convinced that prison authorities had satisfied the least-restictive-alternative test as interpreted by the Supreme Court. A volunteer chaplain had apparently offered to escort Plaintiff to the sweat lodge when it was not in use by others so she could carry out the ritual.  While that may well seem to be the kind of less restrictive alternative that the Supreme Court required in Holt, here there was another complexity:
[Defendants] argue that the religious beliefs of the other inmates, who use the only sweat lodge... would be violated by allowing Plaintiff to enter the sweat lodge at any time, even by herself.... "[S]ome Native American tribes believe that allowing a two-spirited person (an individual suffering from gender identify disorder or gender dysphoria) to enter a sweat lodge utilized by single-spirited individuals would desecrate the religious sanctity of the lodge." ... 
After careful consideration, the Court concludes that Defendants have not establish[ed] that burdening one individual’s religious practice in an attempt to avoid burdening another’s religious practice is a compelling governmental interest under RLUIPA. .... The Court is persuaded that government officials cannot avoid Plaintiff’s RLUIPA claim merely by citing other inmates’ religious concerns, particularly where, as here, the asserted justification is based on mere speculation as to what some other inmates might find religiously objectionable.