9th Circuit revives inmate’s RLUIPA suit

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A federal appeals panel has given new life to a former inmate’s claim that a prison’s ban on group worship by maximum-security prisoners violated his rights.

Ruling in Greene v. Solano County Jail, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a California district court’s dismissal of Darin D. Greene’s claim that the ban violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. The panel’s analysis focused on the definition of “religious exercise” and whether the outright ban on group worship was the least restrictive means to further prison security.

While Greene awaited his trial on charges of terrorist threats and false imprisonment, he was confined for about three months in a maximum-security area at the Claybank facility of the Solano County jail. During this time, Greene requested permission to attend group Christian worship services numerous times. Jail officials denied all these requests and offered to send a chaplain to Greene’s cell. Greene then requested permission to use a classroom for group religious services at least once a week for maximum-security inmates. Officials denied this request as well, again offering a chaplain instead. Greene did not accept either offer for a religious visit but instead requested a Bible and a copy of “The Daily Bread,” a Christian periodical.

Greene, acting as his own attorney, then filed a civil rights suit naming Claybank Facility Commander Lieutenant Peggy Rourk and alleging that her refusal to allow maximum-security inmates to participate in any worship services violated his rights. The protections at issue are covered by RLUIPA, section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, and Penal Code section 4027. Rourk filed a motion for summary judgment, which focused on issues under RLUIPA but did not address any other aspects of Greene’s complaint except briefly stating that she was also entitled to judgment under section 1983.

Adopting the presiding magistrate judge’s findings and recommendations, Judge C. England Jr. of the Eastern District of California granted summary judgment regarding the RLUIPA claim as well as the section 1983 and section 4027 claims, despite the fact that neither side had filed briefs addressing either of the latter two.

RLUIPA provides that no government shall substantially burden an inmate’s religious exercise “even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability,” unless the government shows that the burden is the least restrictive means toward a compelling government interest. This legislation was the result of a set of Supreme Court rulings and Congress’s legislative responses, beginning with Employment Division v. Smith (1990). The statute reinstates the standard for religious exercise cases from opinions overruled by Smith with respect to prisoners and land-use regulation. In the 2005 case Cutter v. Wilkinson, the Supreme Court stated that RLUIPA bars any inquiry into whether the practice in question is central to the prisoner’s religion. A prisoner bringing a RLUIPA claim must show that his or her religious exercise is substantially burdened. Then, the onus shifts to the defendant to show that the regulation causing the burden furthers a compelling governmental interest in the least restrictive way.

In Greene’s case, the exercise in question was the source of disagreement between the district and appellate courts. The district court agreed with Rourk’s argument that Greene’s religious exercise was the general practice of his religion. The judge therefore concluded that group worship was only one component of Greene’s religious exercise that, if banned, would not substantially burden his overall exercise in the absence of any burden on any other particular aspect of his religious exercise. The 9th Circuit, however, concluded in its ruling in January that the practice in question was not Greene’s “ability to practice his religion as a whole, but his ability to engage in group worship.” The court then went on to accept that an outright ban on the group worship clearly constituted a substantial burden on that religious practice.

The 9th Circuit panel next quickly accepted that prison security was a compelling government interest and moved on to consider whether the ban for maximum-security prisoners was the least restrictive means to advance this end. Rourk had argued that maximum-security prisoners simply cannot meet in group settings due to the security risk involved, but Greene countered by asserting that the law library was available for his purposes at least once a week and that he and other maximum-security inmates were escorted to and left alone in the library for up to two hours at least once a week. Because the court was reviewing a summary judgment rather than a verdict involving more detailed fact-finding, it simply pointed out that it was inappropriate to grant summary judgment in light of these competing factual claims in explaining its ruling. Additionally, it restated its language from its 2005 opinion in Warsoldier v. Woodford that in order to show the course taken was the least restrictive means, Rourk would have had to show that jail officials “actually considered and rejected the efficacy of less restrictive measures” before deciding. Rourk did not show such consideration.

In addition to reversing the district court’s RLUIPA findings, the 9th Circuit vacated the lower court’s summary judgment orders on the section 1983 and section 4027 claims, as Greene could not have prospectively argued against Rourk on these unbriefed points. Moreover, the summary judgment regarding those claims was inappropriate in any case because Greene, as the losing party, had no reasonable notice that the sufficiency of his claim was at issue.

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