Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Court: Challenge to Ban on Group Worship at Jail May Proceed
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Prison officials cannot justify a blanket prohibition on group worship by maximum security prisoners merely by citing the need to maintain order and security, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Reversing the decision of U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. of the Eastern District of California, the court held that Darin D. Greene could proceed with a suit against the Solano County jail official contending that their ban on group worship by prisoners violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 because they could not show they had actually considered and rejected less restrictive measures before adopting the policy.
Greene brought the challenge to the jail’s policy while he was a maximum security prisoner at its Claybank facility in 2003 awaiting trial on charges of terrorist threats and false imprisonment. He alleged that he had requested, and had been denied, the opportunity to attend group religious worship services.
After he was ordered to stop attempting to conduct Bible studies and morning prayer with other inmates by “yelling through the corner edge of the cell door” because his actions bothered other prisoners, Greene submitted a grievance, signed by 42 other inmates, requesting that group religious services be provided for maximum security inmates. Solano County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Peggy Rourk, the commander of the Claybank facility, denied the request, but offered to send a chaplain to visit Greene.
Greene filed a second grievance requesting that a classroom at the jail be provided at least once per week to inmates in maximum security for group religious services, but the request was denied, and Greene declined a second offer of a religious visit. Instead, he requested, and was given, copies of the Bible and “The Daily Bread,” a religious periodical.
Acting pro se, Greene filed a civil rights action, alleging that Rourk’s refusal to allow group religious worship was a violation of his rights under the RLUIPA; the First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution; and California Penal Code Sec. 4027, which requires that all prisoners confined in local detention facilities be afforded reasonable opportunities to exercise religious freedom.
Rourk filed a motion for summary judgment, but her motion only focused on Greene’s RLUIPA claim and omitted any discussion as to his other claims. Greene then filed a response, dedicated almost entirely to Rourk’s RLUIPA arguments.
Following the recommendation of a magistrate judge, England granted summary judgment in favor of Rourk on Greene’s RLUIPA claim on the basis that denying Greene the ability to participate in group worship would not substantially burden his ability to exercise his religion. He then, sua sponte, granted her summary judgment on the remaining claims—even though neither party had briefed them—and dismissed the action.
However, the Ninth Circuit reversed England’s decision on the RLUIPA claim. Writing for the court, Judge David R. Thompson said that summary judgment was inappropriate because the policy substantially burdened Greene’s religious exercise, and because Rourk had failed to demonstrate that it was the least restrictive means to further the jail’s compelling interest in maintaining order and security.
Noting that the act bars inquiry into whether a particular practice or belief is “central” to a prisoner’s religion, Thompson rejected Rourk’s arguments that Greene’s religious exercise had not been burdened because was not required to act contrary to his religious beliefs and because alternative means of practicing his religion were available to him. Instead, Thompson wrote, “RLUIPA’s plain language and our caselaw interpreting it compel the conclusion that the ‘religious exercise’ at issue in Greene’s lawsuit is group worship, not Christianity,” and he concluded that “an outright ban on a particular religious exercise is a substantial burden on that religious exercise.”
Thompson acknowledged that the jail had a compelling interest in maintaining order and security, but he said that a disputed issue of material fact remained whether the policy was the least restrictive means of achieving that interest.
“Nothing in our opinion should cast doubt on the fact that prison officials may, under certain circumstances, substantially burden a prisoner’s ability to engage in religious exercise,” he wrote. “But…officials must show that they ‘actually considered and rejected the efficacy of less restrictive measures before adopting the challenged practice.’”
The court also vacated England’s grant of summary judgment as to Greene’s remaining claims because Rourk’s summary judgment motion had failed to produce evidence to negate an essential element of the remaining claims or show that Greene lacked sufficient evidence to carry his ultimate burden of persuasion, and because the motion did not provide Greene with reasonable notice that the sufficiency of his claim would be at issue.
Rejecting Rourk’s argument that Greene’s response to the summary judgment motion setting forth the legal standard for a First Amendment claim demonstrated that he had notice that the remaining, non-RUILPA claims were disputed, Thompson wrote that pro se plaintiffs such as Greene could not “be expected to anticipate and prospectively oppose arguments that an opposing defendant does not make.’
Thompson was joined in his opinion by Senior Judge Arthur L. Alarcón and Judge Richard C. Tallman
The case is Greene v. Solano County Jail, No. 06-16957.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company