Dismissal recommended for inmate’s race-based religion claims

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A California inmate did not have a First Amendment religious-liberty right to share his cell only with members of his own race, a federal magistrate judge has ruled.

The magistrate said the inmate had failed to show how sharing a cell with a person of another race burdened his ability to practice his religion.

Dennis Walker is a self-described Aryan Christian/Odinist inmate at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. He challenged the California Department of Corrections’ Integrated Housing Program on several constitutional grounds. The prison system had sought to eliminate segregated cells after the U.S. Supreme Court  ruled on equal-protection grounds in Johnson v. California (2005) that a state prison policy of housing inmates only with inmates of their own race for the first 60 days of confinement was subject to strict scrutiny, the most stringent form of judicial review.

In October 2008, Walker refused to share a cell with a “non-Aryan Muslim.” He contended that doing so would violate his religious beliefs. Prison officials did not force Walker to share the cell with that inmate, but punished Walker by taking away some of his good-behavior credits and placing him in administrative segregation.

Walker sued in February 2010 under a bevy of constitutional claims. Among them, Walker claimed that prison officials had violated his rights to exercise his religious beliefs freely under the First Amendment. He also claimed that prison officials had violated the federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

On June 21, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gregory G. Hollows issued a memorandum opinion recommending that Walker’s claims be dismissed in Walker v. Cate.

“Both the First Amendment and RLUIPA require plaintiff to demonstrate a burden on the ability to practice his religion,” Hollows wrote. “Other than stating his religion demands being truthful to his race which forbids him from sharing a cell with another race, plaintiff has failed to describe how a cellmate of a different race burdens his ability to practice his religion.”

Unlike the free-exercise clause, RLUIPA does require prison officials to have a compelling government interest before officials can substantially burden an inmate’s religious liberty. But Hollow said that even if Walker somehow showed a substantial burden, prison officials had a compelling interest in ending racial segregation. He wrote that “defendants have shown a compelling government interest in conforming to sixty years of Supreme Court authority that rejects racial segregation.”

The magistrate’s findings and recommendations are sent to the federal district judge, who decides whether to adopt the findings as the findings of the district court. Usually — though not always — federal judges adopt the findings of federal magistrates.

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