Thursday, February 19, 2009

5th Circuit Holds No Damage Claims Permitted In Prisoner RLUIPA Suits

In Sossamon v. Lone Star State of Texas, (5th Cir., Feb. 18, 2009), the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a suit for damages (as opposed to injunctive and declaratory relief) is not available under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. It agreed with the 11th Circuit that damages are not available in suits against officials in their individual capacities. Because RLUIPA was enacted under Congress' Spending Clause Powers, only the governmental recipient of the grant may be liable for a violation. It went on to hold that official-capacity damage actions are barred by the state's sovereign immunity. Agreeing with the 4th Circuit, it concluded that RLUIPA did not clearly alert the state of Texas that it would waive sovereign immunity for damage actions by accepting federal funding. However the court remanded for further proceedings plaintiff's claim for injunctive and declaratory relief. Plaintiff objected to the prison's policy of prohibiting congregational worship in the prison's chapel. He claimed that alternative worship venues do not give him access to Christian symbols or furnishings such as an altar or cross. [Thanks to Carol Gardner for the lead.]