Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Recent Prisoner Free Exercise Cases

In Fowler v. Crawford, (8th Cir., July 25, 2008), the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision by Missouri state prison officials to deny a Native American prisoner's request for a sweat lodge to practice his religious faith. Inmate Clifford Fowler alleged that the denial violated his rights under RLUIPA. The court concluded, however, that the prison had a compelling interest in maintaining order and security, and that other alternative were offered to Fowler. Just because another prison in the state's system operates a sweat lodge without incident does not demonstrate that prohibiting a sweat lodge was the least restrictive means to further the institution's security concerns. (See prior related posting.)

In Hathcock v. Cohen, (11th Cir., July 23, 2008), involved claims by a Muslim prisoner that he was prevented from wearing a Kufi, attending Friday prayer services and eating kosher meals on some days during Ramadan. The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that RLUIPA does not create a private action for damages against prison officials in their individual capacities. The court then rejected plaintiff's First Amendment claims, holding that the requirement to obtain approval for religious attire was reasonable as was the reliance on volunteer chaplains to conduct Jumu'ah services. The temporary failure to receive kosher meals was an oversight that was corrected by prison officials.

In Wolff v. Perkins, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55815 (D NH, July 21, 2008), a New Hampshire federal district court dismissed as moot a prisoner's claim that his rights under RLUIPA were violated when his kosher meal privileges were temporarily revoked because he had violated the requirements of a kosher diet. Revised prison policies bar the food service supervisor from suspending an inmate's kosher diet, and instead refer such inmates to the chaplain for counseling. (See prior related posting.)

In Heleva v. Kramer, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55027 (MD PA, July 16, 2008), a Pennsylvania federal district court rejected an inmate's First Amendment and RLUIPA challenges to a prison rule that packages containing books will be delivered to prisoners only if sent directly from the publisher. Confusion about the source of two religious books shipped to plaintiff resulted in an 8-month delay in his obtaining them. (See prior related posting.)

In Stanko v. Patton, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56269 (D NE, July 24, 2008), a Nebraska federal district court rejected First Amendment claims by a litigious white supremacist prisoner who claimed to be an ordained minister of a non-Christian white supremacist religion known as the Church of the Creator. Plaintiff asserted that he was entitled to a holy meal of fresh fruits and nuts to break his religious fast. The court held that there are legitimate cost and security reasons for refusing the special food items. It concluded: "Hate is not a religion and jails do not have to provide nuts and fresh fruits to satisfy the whims of haters." (See prior related posting.)