Friday, June 19, 2015
Ninth Circuit Panel Rejects State Prisoner’s Claim That Racial Integration Violates Religious Freedom
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday rejected a white prisoner’s claim that California prison officials violated his religious freedom by subjecting him to a policy that allows them to assign him a non-white cellmate.
The panel affirmed a district judge’s ruling that the housing integration policy does not violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, or the First Amendment.
The plaintiff, Dennis Walker, is an Aryan Christian Odinist, he alleged in his complaint. The tenets of that faith, he subsequently explained, prohibit him from associating with people who aren’t Aryan, and specifically require him to engage in a “warding” ritual, which can only be performed in the presence of white people, since the presence of a non-Aryan would “pollute” the spiritual circle in which the ritual is performed.
Walker requested that prison officials accommodate his religious beliefs by assigning him an Aryan cellmate, a request that was denied. In moving to dismiss his lawsuit, the state explained that under the policy, there is a strong presumption that an inmate is “racially eligible,” meaning that a cellmate will be assigned without regard to race.
In some cases, a prisoner may be “restricted to own,” for example if a prisoner has a history of perpetrating or being victimized by racial violence. If a prisoner is classified as racially eligible but refuses to accept a cellmate based on race, he will be categorized as “restricted by refusal” and subject to disciplinary action, but not forced to live in an integrated cell.
At the time he filed suit, Walker was in administrative segregation as a result of his refusal to accept a nonwhite cellmate. He was subsequently transferred to another prison, but remains classified as racially eligible, which the Ninth Circuit said makes his lawsuit not moot.
Senior Judge A. Wallace Tashima, writing for the Ninth Circuit, acknowledged that the warding ritual is a religious practice and that the integrated housing policy substantially burdens Odinists’ religious freedom. While Odinism is outside the religious mainstream, the judge wrote, even a “devout racist” like Walker has the right to choose his religious faith.
But the state, he said, had carried its burden of showing that its policy is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interest in eliminating racial discrimination in prison housing.
The judge noted that prior to 2005, California had a race-based celling policy, which was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Tashima agreed with the state that allowing inmates to exempt themselves from the integration policy adopted in response to the high court’s decision, even for sincere religious reasons, “would undermine the policy’s efficacy and potentially violate the equal protection rights of non-white inmates.”
The judge went on to reject the plaintiff’s argument that even if the policy serves a compelling governmental interest, it was up to the state to explain what alternatives it had considered and why it rejected them. “Although the government bears the burden of proof to show its practice is the least-restrictive means, it is under no obligation to dream up alternatives that the plaintiff himself has not proposed,” Tashima wrote.
Walker, he said, has never suggested any alternative other than to be exempted from the policy. While it might be possible to accommodate Walker in some other way, for example by allowing him time outside his cell to perform the ritual, the state has no obligation to offer an accommodation the prisoner doesn’t ask for, the judge said.
The case is Walker v. Beard, 12-17460.
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