Federal appeals panel sides with inmate in dispute over peanut butter and religion

Thursday, July 13, 2000

The Arkansas Department of Corrections violated the free-exercise rights of an inmate by refusing to honor his request for peanut butter and bread in his cell on his Sabbath, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Inmate Kelvin Ray Love proclaims himself to be an adherent to the “Hebrew religion,” though he does not yet consider himself Jewish. Love bases his religious beliefs on his own study of the Old Testament, which he believes requires him not to eat food prepared by others on the Sabbath “nor have others serve him through their work on the Sabbath.”

For this religious reason, Love requested that prison officials provide him with peanut butter and bread on Saturday that he could eat on Sunday — his Sabbath day.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections refused, saying that it did not have to provide him with food from the prison kitchen for his Sabbath meals. The department claimed that doing so would compromise its concerns about cell cleanliness and contraband rules.

Love sued in federal court, contending that the refusal to provide him with food violated his rights to freely exercise his religious beliefs.

In 1999, a federal district court judge ruled in favor of Love. The Department of Corrections appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On July 5, a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit sided with Love in Love v. Reed.

The department of corrections first argued that Love was entitled to no First Amendment protection because his beliefs do not constitute a religion.

The panel cited a 1981 3rd Circuit decision, Africa v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to determine whether an individual's beliefs constituted a religion. The three factors listed in Africa were:

Whether the individual's beliefs address “fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters.”

Whether the person's beliefs constitute a “belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching.”

Whether the individual's beliefs “can be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.”

As to the first factor, the panel noted that Love relied on his own interpretations of the text of the Old Testament, which is central to the study of both Christianity and Judaism.

Calling into question Love's beliefs because he relied on the Old Testament, the panel wrote, “would be to call into question the 'religiousness' of two of the most prominent religions in the country.”

As to the second factor, the court wrote: “It is not the place of the courts to deny a man the right to his religion simply because he is still struggling to assimilate the full scope of its doctrine.”

The Arkansas Department of Corrections argued that Love failed to demonstrate that his beliefs included “formal services, ceremonial functions, the existence of clergy … and other similar manifestations associated with the traditional religions.”

However, the appeals court panel noted that “Love does strictly observe a weekly 'holiday' by keeping the Sabbath holy, and he has indicated that he would engage in other ceremonial behavior (such as ritual cleansing) if the strictures of prison life did not prevent it.”

The panel also cited the 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment Security Division for the proposition that “the guarantee of free exercise is not limited to beliefs which are shared by all of the members of a religious sect.”

The panel concluded: “Not only is Love's belief-system a 'religion,' but his preference for food not prepared or served on the Sabbath is a religious preference which falls within the ambit of the First Amendment.”

The appeals court panel then addressed the corrections department's argument that refusing to provide food from their kitchen on Saturday for Love's consumption on Sunday did not substantially burden his ability to freely exercise his religious faith.

The department contended that Love could buy food from the commissary or simply fast on the Sabbath.

The panel rejected both arguments. First, the court noted that the lower court determined that Love was indigent and might not be able to purchase from the commissary.

Second, the panel wrote that “the option of fasting is not a reasonable accommodation of his religious dietary needs. An enforced fast on the Sabbath detracts from the joy of the day.”

The court then determined whether the department of corrections had shown a reasonable relationship between its policy and a legitimate governmental interest.

The department of corrections argued that the “hoarding” of food by inmates would compromise the department's legitimate interest in maintaining a sanitary prison. Attorneys for the department also argued that if Love's request was honored, other inmates would make similar demands, thereby compromising the state's interests in order and security.

The panel determined that these justifications were “unconvincing.” The panel first noted that Love requested only peanut-butter sandwiches, which were not highly perishable items.

As to the security and order justifications, the panel wrote that the department's “real concern” was that it would have to accommodate other inmates. “This justification for denying Love's accommodation is not persuasive,” the panel wrote. “If other prisoners request dietary accommodations which are based merely upon personal preference, the ADC will be under no obligation to provide those accommodations.”

The panel concluded that “the ADC's policy infringes upon Love's sincerely held religious beliefs and that it is not reasonably related to any valid penological interest.”

Michael Teague, spokesman for the Arkansas attorney general's office, said the decision would not be appealed. “We are not pleased with the ruling and hope it does not encourage inmates to create religions for the purpose of making outrageous requests.”

Thomas H. McGowan, Love's attorney, praised the decision. “The state had been foolhardy in denying Mr. Love's request for accommodation. The department of corrections was never able to express a legitimate penological interest that was jeopardized.”

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