Inmate fails to show substantial burden of his religious liberty

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Inmates suing for violations of their religious liberties could learn a lesson from what happened to the claim filed by a Maryland man in a maximum security hospital.

Michael Edward Johnson alleged that his religious freedom was violated while he was a patient at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital. The forensic psychiatric hospital primarily serves those who have raised legal defenses of “not criminally responsible” or “not competent to stand trial.”

Johnson’s federal lawsuit alleged that his rights were violated when he was placed in a “strip room” and his prayer book and other possessions were taken from him. Hospital policy for patients in seclusion is to remove all possessions for safety reasons.

But depriving him of his prayer book, Johnson contended, violated his constitutional rights under the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment and his statutory rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

Unfortunately for Johnson, he failed to explain why the temporary removal of his prayer book substantially burdened his religious-liberty rights. Individuals alleging religious-freedom claims must show such a burden.

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz seized upon this failure and dismissed Johnson’s claim in his Oct. 7 decision in Johnson v. Hafiz.

“He does not allege that the policy of taking property when an inmate is placed in seclusion substantially burdened his exercise of religion,” Motz wrote. “Nor does he allege that the confiscation of his property was not related to the institution’s goal of maintaining safety and security.”

Tags: ,