‘Lord Versatile’ harnesses power of RLUIPA

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Virginia prisoner who thought his religious rights had been violated apparently knew there were two ways to advance his claim in court — one more likely to succeed than the other. It turns out he chose the right one for his purpose.

Inmate Lord Versatile, also known as Venson Leon Coward, challenged a prison’s refusal to recognize his group as a religion, and a prison ban on his group’s publications. Representing himself, Lord Versatile pressed his religious-liberty claims under the federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), rather than as a free-exercise claim directly under the First Amendment.

In a recent federal court decision, he won the right to continue his challenge. The ruling underscores what other inmates with religious-liberty claims have found: One approach probably works better than the other.

Lord Versatile contends that of the Virginia Department of Corrections violated his rights under RLUIPA by refusing to recognize Nation of Gods and Earths as a religion and by banning the group’s publications. Versatile, who has been a member of NGE since 1987, regularly read the group’s publications, including its newspaper The Five Percenter. In August 2006, prison officials imposed a blanket ban on many of NGE’s publications, including The Five Percenter. The prison system said it considered NGE a disruptive gang than promotes black supremacy rather than a religion.

In December 2007, Lord Versatile petitioned prison officials at Sussex I State Prison to recognize NGE as a religion. A prison chaplain rejected the petition, citing the prison system’s position. Lord Versatile then filed a grievance, which was also denied. He then filed a claim in federal district court against prison officials, alleging violations of RLUIPA, a federal law passed in 2000 that affirms that people in institutions have religious-liberty rights. The law prohibits prisons from imposing substantial burdens on inmates’ religious liberties unless officials can demonstrate a compelling interest in their regulation, carried out in the least-restrictive way possible. In other words, RLUIPA incorporates the strict-scrutiny standard — the most rigorous form of judicial review.

It appears that Lord Versatile knew that his best chance of success was filing a statutory claim under RLUIPA rather than a constitutional claim under the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment. Under the free-exercise clause, prison officials do not have to meet strict scrutiny, but must show that their regulation of inmate religious liberty is justifiable because the restrictions are reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns, such as security and rehabilitation.

The Virginia Department of Corrections submitted an affidavit from Gary Clove, manager of the department’s Gang Management Unit. Clove said the Nation of Gods and Earths was a gang that promoted black supremacy and “consistently recruits other gang members (i.e. Bloods, Crips, etc.) to join their gang.”

However, U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams rejected the affidavit in his Dec. 31 opinion in Lord Versatile v. Johnson, because it failed to show that Clove had personal knowledge of these matters and because the prison system failed to submit evidence supporting the assertions.

Williams also refused to dismiss Lord Versatile’s RLUIPA claims. Although prison officials contended that prison security necessitates a ban on NGE publications that might inflame racial tensions and cause other disruptions, Williams was not impressed: “As discussed above, Clove’s affidavit is not proper summary judgment evidence. Even if it were, however, the Court would deny summary judgment because Defendants did not provide evidence of even a single instance of an inmate using NGE materials for any subversive activities at Sussex I or any other VDOC institution.”

Williams further reasoned that even if VDOC officials established a compelling safety interest, they failed to show that the ban they employed was the least restrictive means available. He noted that defendants failed to cite “any case where a court concluded that a blanket ban on all religious literature was the least restrictive means of furthering security interests similar to those they advance here.”

Had Lord Versatile advanced his claim under the free-exercise clause, the court might have deferred to prison officials’ judgment and ruled in their favor. However, RLUIPA imposes a heightened burden on prison officials that the judge recognized and applied.

Williams referred the matter to a federal magistrate for further proceedings.

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