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RLUIPA Bars Total Ban on Melanic Literature

A Michigan federal district court has entered an injunction that bars the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) from continuing a total ban on Melanic literature, requiring MDOC officials to screen such literature to ensure prohibited materials are prevented entry into MDOC prisons.

The courts order comes in a civil rights action filed by MDOC prisoner Fingal E. Johnson, which was certified as a class action and has seen over five years of litigation. Before the court was what it construed as opposing motions for summary judgment.

This action started after MDOC classified the Melanic Islamic Palace of the Rising Sun and its imprisoned members as a Security Threat Group (STG). That classification came after several Melanics were involved in a riot at MDOCs Chippewa Valley prison. Johnson describes the Melanic faith as a religion that is significantly influenced by Islam and other spiritual philosophies. Because of the STG classification MDOC ordered all Melanic materials to be disposed of by prisoners, and placed a blanket ban on all incoming Melanic literature.

The prisoners argued the total ban violated the First Amendment, Due Process Clause, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Before addressing these questions, the court addressed the defendants qualified immunity motion. The court held there was no clearly established law that a total ban of material from a group with the STG classification or the Melanics specifically was constitutionally forbidden, making the defendants immune on the First Amendment claim.

The court also found that because the prisoners were given seven business days notice that MDOC was going to confiscate all Melanic materials and they were able to grieve that confiscation, the prisoners due process claim failed, entitling defendants to qualified immunity. Finally, the court held the defendants were qualifiedly immune from damages under RLUIPA because the RLUIPA was not in effect at the time of the January 12, 2000 MDOC order on Melanic literature.

Moving to the request for declaratory and injunctive relief, the court found that the MDOCs total ban on Melanic Literature was reasonably related to MDOCs penological needs. Therefore, the court held that under Turner v. Safely, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), the prisoners First Amendment claim failed.

The court, however, found that RLUIPA imposes a heightened burden on MDOC, requiring that any substantial burden on an imprisoned persons religious exercise must further a compelling governmental interest and be done by the least restrictive means possible. The court held that rather than a total ban on Melanic Literature, the MDOC can screen the literature to assure it does not contain threats to prison security.

Accordingly, the court granted the prison officials summary judgment on the First Amendment and Due Process claims, but reluctantly entered injunctive relief on the RLUIPA claim, barring a total ban on Melanic materials. See: Johnson v. Martin, 2005 WL 3312566 (USDC, W.D.Mich. 2005).

In a subsequent ruling on the MDOCs motion for reconsideration, the district court upheld its previous ruling granting injunctive relief. See: Johnson v. Martin, 2006 WL 223108 (USDC, W.D.Mich. 2006).

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Related legal cases

Johnson v. Martin

Johnson v. Martin