8th Circuit: Limiting Wiccan inmates’ observance OK

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Iowa prison officials did not violate the religious-liberty rights of three Wiccan inmates by giving them three hours to hold a religious ceremony, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The three-hour time limit for the ceremony did not impose a “substantial burden” on the inmates under the free-exercise clause or the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a unanimous three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal decided in Gladson v. Iowa Department of Corrections.

Lawrence T. Gladson, Darrell Smith and Scott Everett Howrey, inmates at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, sued prison officials in 2005 [2006?], alleging they did not receive sufficient time to observe Samhain, the most important of eight annual Wiccan holidays.

In 2002, Iowa prison officials and Wiccan inmates settled a dispute in Hood v. Kautsky, as prison officials agreed to recognize Wicca as a religion. The written settlement agreement in that case provided in part that “Wiccan religion is recognized … and treated like other religious groups at ISP [Iowa State Penitentiary].”  However, the agreement was silent on how much time Wiccan inmates were to have to observe religious holidays. For several years after the settlement, the inmates were given three hours for Samhain.

Inmates Gladson, Smith and Howrey filed prison grievances beginning in 2003, contending that they needed at least eight hours to properly observe Samhain, which consists of four parts — set-up, ritual, feast and clean-up. During the set-up, Wiccans lay out a circle, an altar and other communal items. The ritual consists of cleansing the area of “energies” from others, blessing the circle and purifying the participants. During the feast, called “the Dumb Supper,” the participants socialize. Clean-up consists of putting away all the celebratory items.

The inmates said three hours wasn't enough time in which to conduct all those activities. After their prison grievances were denied, the inmates sued in federal court.

In November 2006, a federal magistrate ruled for the prison officials. He found no “doctrinal justification” to establish that the inmates needed eight hours to conduct and observe Samhain.

The inmates then appealed to the 8th Circuit. The appellate court rejected the application of a formal “doctrinal justification” requirement, citing cases showing that inmates are entitled to religious-liberty protection even if their practices differ from those of other practitioners of the faith or don’t comport with formal religious doctrine. Instead, the appellate panel said, courts must ask whether the inmates' religious beliefs are sincerely held and whether officials substantially burdened the inmates’ religious practices.

Because the prison officials did not contest that the inmates’ religious beliefs were sincerely held, the key issue under both the free-exercise clause and RLUIPA was whether the prison officials “substantially burdened” the Wiccan inmates’ religious practices. Even though the standards of review are different from those of a constitutional claim under the free-exercise clause and a statutory claim under RLUIPA, both claims require a plaintiff to show that his or her religious exercises were substantially burdened.

The panel determined that the Wiccan inmates failed to put forth evidence of a substantial burden. It wrote: “Here the inmates have failed to offer any evidence that the ISP’s grant of three hours for them to celebrate Samhain significantly inhibits or constrains their conduct or expression; meaningfully curtails their ability to express adherence to their faith; or denies them reasonable opportunities to engage in those activities that are fundamental to their religion.”

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