Sunday, October 04, 2009

Recent Prisoner Free Exercise Cases

In Jova v. Smith, (2nd Cir., Sept. 28, 2009), the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals held that, under RLUIPA, prison authorities had demonstrated a compelling interest in a policy that permits inmates who lack a prison-affiliated chaplain to seek an outside sponsor, but where one is not available to allow an inmate to serve as facilitator of congregational worship only if the religion is known outside the institution. One of the two plaintiffs was the founder of Tulukeesh. The court also upheld against a RLUIPA challenge refusals to allow plaintiff to spar and receive martial arts training. However the court remanded for further consideration whether there was a less restrictive way of accommodating plaintiff’s complex religious dietary needs, such an entirely vegetarian diet. New York Law Journal reported on the decision last week. [Thanks to Steven H. Sholk for this lead.] In a related summary order issued on the same day, the court rejected plaintiff’s free exercise challenge and various other related claims. (See prior related posting.)

In Watson v. Wakefield, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88395 (SD TX, Sept. 25, 2009), a Texas federal district court allowed two Muslim inmates to move ahead with his claim under RLUIPA that his rights were violated when he was barred for six months from attending Muslim services because during a scheduled prayer service he called for the resignation of his unit’s inmate Islamic coordinator. The court concluded that defendants had not shown for purposes of summary judgment that exclusion was the least restrictive means of promoting prison safety and security after a single incident of disruption. The court did however dismiss plaintiff’s First Amendment free exercise claim.

Vega v. Lantz, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88550 (D CT, Sept. 25, 2009), involved free exercise and equal protection complaints, as well as a claim under RLUIPA, alleging a lengthy series of restrictions on a Muslim inmate’s right to practice his religion. A Connecticut federal magistrate judge rejected plaintiff’s complaint that he was denied halal meat and 5-times per day congregate prayer, as well as complaints about several other alleged infringements. The court however permitted plaintiff to move ahead with claims that Friday Jumah services are frequently cancelled, that the Qu’ran was mishandled, that his request to be circumcised for religious reasons was refused, that he was not allowed to purchase a toothstick, and that prayer oils sold in the commissary did not comply with Islamic requirements. The court also held that damages are not available under RLUIPA in claims against officials in their individual capacities.

In Decker v. Hogan, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89048 (ND NY, Sept. 28, 2009), a New York federal district court permitted an atheist civil detainee who was placed in a sexual offender treatment program to move ahead with his First Amendment claim that portions of the program are based on Zen Buddhism and Christianity. The court, however refused to issue a preliminary injunction because plaintiff had not shown a substantial likelihood of success on the merits.

In Lewis v. Foster, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88652 (D DE, Sept. 25, 2009), a Delaware federal district court rejected a claim by a former inmate that while he was incarcerated he was denied access to a razor to shave his head. He claimed that his Hebrew Israelite religion required him to shave his head for an indeterminate time after he came in contact with a dead body, namely his stillborn child.

In Lee v. Gurney, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88883 (ED VA, Sept. 25, 2009), a Virginia federal district court rejected a Sunni Muslim inmate’s First Amendment and Equal Protection contentions, but permitted him to move ahead with his claim under RLUIPA complaining about a ban on group prayer in the prison recreation yard. The court concluded that authorities had not shown for summary judgment purposes that they used the least restrictive means to further a compelling interest in imposing the ban.

In Ramsey v. Goord, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88859 (WD NY, Aug. 19, 2009), a New York federal magistrate judge refused to grant defendants’ motion for summary judgment on a series of related claims by an inmate who declared himself to be Jewish who was temporarily removed from the prison’s kosher food program without any chance to challenge the claimed reasons for his removal. He was charged with giving some of his kosher food to another inmate when it appears that this was done by an inmate porter of the food trays rather than plaintiff. Plaintiff was also allowed to move ahead with his claim that his removal from the program was in retaliation for his providing a statement helping another Jewish inmate in his charges against a prison staff member.

In Ellis v. United States, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89392 (WD PA, Sept. 28, 2009), a Pennsylvania federal district court dismissed a Muslim federal inmate’s negligence claim stemming from the omission of his name from the call-out sheet for the 2006 Eid celebration as well as his free exercise claim based on the denial of Halal meat for the 2006 Eid celebration. The court also adopted a number of recommendations made in the case by a federal magistrate judge (2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90035 (June 2, 2009)) including permitting plaintiff to move ahead with a RFRA claim that his name was omitted for 3 months from the call-out list for Jumu’ah services, an equal protection claim regarding denial of Halal meat for the Eid service, and a retaliation claim. The court agreed to deny a RFRA claim relating to plaintiff’s ability to purchase prayer oil and omission of Halal meat from the Eid service.

In Katz v. McGrew, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89599 (D HI, Sept. 23, 2009), a Hawaii federal district court dismissed without prejudice a claim by a Jewish prisoner seeking a transfer from Hawaii to a mainland federal prison where he could eat and pray in a Sukkah during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The court said that case should have been brought as a civil rights claim, and not as a habeas corpus claim.

In Mayo v. Norris, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89831 (ED AK, Sept. 17, 2009), and Arkansas federal magistrate judge recommended dismissing as frivolous a claim by an inmate who said he is a Disciple of Christ that he requires a one-person cell so he can be separate from those who do not obey the doctrines of Jesus.

In Boles v. Neet, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91474 (D CO, Sept. 29, 2009), a Colorado federal district court accepted a federal magistrate’s recommendations (2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90019 (March 13, 2009) and dismissed a complaint by an Orthodox Jewish prisoner that he was not permitted to wear his yarmulke and talit katan while being transported off prison premises for cataract surgery. (The case was on remand from the 10th Circuit. See prior posting.)