Sunday, September 16, 2007

Recent Prisoner Free Exercise Cases-- District, Circuit and State Decisions

In Kay v. Bemis, (10th Cir., Sept. 11, 2007), the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a Utah district court's dismissal of a prisoner's complaint that he had been denied tarot cards, incense, and religious books. It found several errors in the trial court's approach, including its insistence that the use of tarot cards and other items be "necessary" to the practice of the prisoner's Wicca religion. The appellate court said that it is enough that the prisoner sincerely believed in use of the requested items.

In Travillion v. Coffee, (3d Cir., Sept. 12, 2007), the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Establishment Clause and Equal Protection challenges to actions of the food service contractor for the Allegheny County (PA) jail. During the 2004 Lenten season, it served vegetarian meals to all inmates, regardless of their religious affiliation.

In Williams v. Thurmer, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 65628 (ED WI, Aug. 27, 2007), a Wisconsin federal district court held that plaintiff stated a claim under the Free Exercise clause and RLUIPA when he alleged that prison officials prevented him from obtaining the Quran and other religious material and from cleaning himself prior to praying. He also adequately stated an Equal Protection claim, alleging that Christian inmates could possess Bibles while he was not permitted to possess a copy of the Quran.

In Messere v. Dennehy, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 65529, (Aug. 8, 2007), magistrate's report adopted, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 65442 (D MA, Aug. 30, 2007), a Massachusetts federal district court denied defendant's motion to dismiss a suit brought against her by a prisoner who was denied transfer to a lower security prison because he refused to attend religious-based AA/ NA programs.

In McGowan v. Cantrell, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64534 (ED TN, Aug. 30, 2007), as part of a case asserting a series of claims, a prisoner alleged that his Free Exercise rights were violated when prison authorities took his Bibles, Bible Dictionary, and Bible Concordance away from him for one day. The court concluded that plaintiff had not demonstrated that he was denied a reasonable opportunity to practice his religion.

In Williams v. Fleming, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67738 (WD VA, Sept. 13, 2007), plaintiff complained that prison authorities improperly interfered with his religiously motivated attempt to fast for 40 days. The court held that there are valid penological interests for prohibiting an inmate from fasting for that period of time. It also rejected his claims that officials retaliated against him because of his exercise of his religious beliefs.

In Andersen v. Griffin, (CA 4th Dist. Ct. App., Sept. 13, 2007), a California appellate court rejected a claim by an inmate held in protective custody that the Establishment Clause was violated by a correctional program coordinator who frequently tuned the television set watched by inmates to a religious channel that promoted a single religion. Plaintiff asserted that this amounted to promoting a specific religion to the inmate population.