Sunday, March 27, 2016

Lower Courts Applying Tougher RLUIPA Standards In Prisoner Cases

Last year's Supreme Court decision in Holt v. Hobbs on prisoner rights (see prior posting) is slowly beginning to impact otherwise routine prisoner claims in lower courts.  Muhammad v. Wheeler, (ED AR, March 22, 2016) involves a rather typical RLUIPA challenge by a Muslim inmate to the availability of a Halal diet in his Arkansas prison.  A vegetarian diet that complies with Halal requirements was available, but a Halal compliant diet containing meat was not. The federal magistrate judge who first heard the case recommended rejecting the claim on the ground that plaintiff had not shown a substantial burden on his religious exercise. (2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 36816, Jan. 19, 2016). However the district court rejected this portion of the recommendation.  In refusing to grant summary judgment to either side, the court said in part:
It is certainly conceivable that providing halal meat to Mr. Muhammad would increase security concerns and require considerable resources to the extent that deciding not to provide it at all furthers a compelling government interest. However, ... [defendants] fail to make properly that argument..... For example, in support of their cost argument, they claim that changing their policy would incur an increase of “over $9,600 for one serving of meat” and that “depending on which meal plan an inmate is on, meat is generally served three times per day”... They calculate this substantial figure by multiplying the difference in cost between halal meat and regular meat by 16,020, the total number of inmates housed by the ADC. This is precisely the type of generalized argument that is not allowed under the RLUIPA. The proper focused inquiry under the RLUIPA is whether denying halal meat to Mr. Muhammad, not all ADC inmates, furthers a compelling government interest.
Even if ... [defendants] successfully demonstrated that completely denying Mr. Muhammad access to halal meat furthers a compelling government interest, they fail to show how their no-halal-meat policy is the least restrictive means of serving that interest....  For example, nothing in the record indicates how often halal meat would need to be served to satisfy Mr. Muhammad’s religious needs. Does Mr. Muhammad require three servings of meat a day or one serving a year? They also fail to respond to Mr. Muhammad’s proposed compromise – a pescatarian meal plan that combines the three halal fish items already served in the common fare plan with the vegetarian plan.... It is unclear to the Court whether this plan fits within Mr. Muhammad’s own beliefs regarding a halal diet, but if he claims that offering a pescatarian meal plan would no longer place a substantial burden upon his religious exercise, ... [defendants] must show how refusing to provide such a plan furthers a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of doing so.