Saturday, February 03, 2007

Recent Prisoner Religious Freedom Cases

In Smithback v. Texas, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6033 (ND TX, Jan. 29, 2007), a Texas inmate brought a religious freedom challenge to a rule of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice that prohibited prisoners from placing extraneous drawings or illustrations on envelopes they mail out from prison. Plaintiff claims that prison authorities refused to let him send a letter to his family in an envelope containing a handwritten drawing of a large cross surrounded by the words "Jesus" and "LORD!" A federal Magistrate Judge held that this restriction did not substantially burden plaintiff’s free exercise of religion, and that prison authorities had a legitimate penological interest in imposing the restriction.

In Heleva v. Kramer, (3d Cir., Jan. 27, 2007), the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a Pennsylvania district court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s free exercise of religion claim. The Court of Appeals held that the lower court erred in finding that books sent to him by his sister were not "religious". The lower court’s distinction between religious books and spiritual, self-help books was found to be untenable. Also the court held that the fact the prisoner’s claim is based on the deprivation of personal property—refusal to give him the books sent to him—does not prevent him from asserting a free exercise claim.

In Kay v. Friel, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6391 (D UT, Jan. 26, 2007), and in the related case of Kay v. Bemis, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6392 (D UT, Jan 25, 2007), a Utah federal district court rejected a Wiccan prisoner’ free exercise, establishment clause and RLUIPA claims growing out of allegations that officials at two different prisons variously prevented him from possessing items needed for religious practices, including tarot cards, a Dungeons and Dragons game, and a metal religious symbol, and prevented him from purchasing incense and certain books. The court held that plaintiff’s complaint contains no allegations of facts showing that the items he desires are necessary to the practice of the Wicca religion, nor does it describe the nature of the religious ritual he was prevented from conducting, nor—in the Bemis case-- does he make clear his religious affiliation. The state had a reasonable explanation for the lack of Wiccan religious services. Finally, the relief he sought under RLUIPA is unavailable to him.

In Young v. Beard, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6950 (ED PA, Jan. 31, 2007), a Pennsylvania federal district judge, after a non-jury trial, rejected a prisoner’s claim that prison policy permitting religious musical bands—and permitting them to rehearse more frequently than secular bands—violates the establishment clause and equal protection clause.

In Nelson v. Miller, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6580 (SD IL, Jan. 30, 2007), an Illinois federal Magistrate Judge dismissed various claims by a Catholic prisoner that prison authorities failed to furnish him a diet that complies with his religious beliefs. The court found that plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as to one free exercise claim. His claim relating to denial of a vegan diet are moot because he is now receiving such a diet, and there is no reasonable expectation that it will be withdrawn. The court found that the 11th Amendment barred plaintiff’s damage claim under RLUIPA against defendant in his official capacity.

In Thompson v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95008 (MD PA, filed Feb. 1, 2007), a Pennsylvania federal district court adopted recommendations of a federal magistrate judge rejecting claims of a Rastafarian prisoner who had been refused an exemption from a prison’s hair-length requirements. Officials found that his religious beliefs were not sincere. The court found that two of the defendants had in fact supported plaintiff’s claim for an exemption, so no cause of action lies against them.