Sunday, September 27, 2009

Recent Prisoner Free Exercise Cases

In May v. Donneli, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85495 (ND NY, Aug. 25, 2009), a New York federal magistrate judge held that merely a loss of a few pounds was insufficient physical injury to justify a claim for compensatory damages under the Prison Litigation Reform Act that precludes compensatory damages for emotional injury unaccompanied by physical injury. In the case, a prisoner asserted that for seven days of Ramadan he was precluded from breaking the fast with blessed food. The court also held that a damage claim under the NY Corrections Law had to be brought in the state court of claims.

In Davis v. Hightower, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85505 (ND FL, July 13, 2009), a federal magistrate judge recommended rejection of a Wiccan inmate's claim that his free exercise rights were infringed when authorities confiscated 9 "religious healing stones" from his property which he used to help heal his peptic ulcer.

Mauwee v. Donat, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86148 (D NV, Sept. 18, 2009), involved claims that prison officials desecrated the prison's sweat lodge area by allowing non-Indians to use it. A Nevada federal district court concluded that damage claims are not permitted under RLUIPA and that plaintiffs' claim for equitable relief was precluded by qualified immunity. It also concluded that objections to changes in sweat lodge procedures were now moot since those changes had been rescinded. The magistrate's recommended findings in the case are at 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86141 (May 28, 2009).

In Kinney v. Curtin, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86225 (WD MI, July 29, 2009), and in Thomas v. Bergh, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86893 (WD MI, Aug. 21, 2009), a Michigan federal magistrate judge recommended that the court uphold decisions to deny plaintiffs participation in their prison's kosher food program because plaintiff had not shown that his beliefs were sincerely held.

In Parks v. Smith, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87147 (ND NY, Sept. 23, 2009), a New York federal district court accepted most of the magistrate's recommendations (2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87210, Aug. 17, 2009) allowing a Jehovah's Witness inmate to move ahead with his claim that authorities violated his free exercise rights and his rights under RLUIPA when they disciplined him for attempting to mail a photograph of himself in a meditation pose to a company for use in a personal ad. Prison authorities claim that the pose is in fact a gang signal. The court rejected the magistrate's holding that plaintiff's free exercise and retaliation claims were duplicative. He might be able to show retaliation based on religion even if he did not succeed in his claim that his rights were infringed when authorities classified his meditation pose as a gang signal.

In Strope v. McKune, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86886 (D KS, Sept. 22, 2009) and Strope v. Cummings, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86885 (D KS, Sept. 22, 2009), a Kansas federal district court rejected claims that Assembly of Yahweh inmates were not given adequate time for worship. It also rejected claims that certain foods served to those on the kosher diet were routinely spoiled, and that other foods were not included. UPDATE: The 10th Circuit affirmed (June 11, 2010).

In Shepard v. Peryam, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87189 (SD FL, Aug. 20, 2009), a Florida federal magistrate judge recommended that the court reject claims by a Muslim pre-trial detainee that he was denied religious services, prayer beads, a prayer rug, a Kufi (prayer cap), and a Kosher diet.

In Floyd v. Leslie, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87758 (ND IN, Sept. 23, 2009), and Indiana federal district court allowed an inmate to move ahead with his complaint that a prison officer denied him access to Satanist religious material that belonged to him, but the court dismissed plaintiff's claim against the prison's chaplain.

In Jenkins v. Vail, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87730 (ED WA, Aug. 31, 2009), a federal district court (rejecting a magistrate's recommendations, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87769, July 22, 2009) refused to grant a preliminary injunction to a Muslim inmate who would not participate in work or educational programming on the ground that his sincerely held religious beliefs prevent him from supporting a non-Islamic government.