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Eighth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Forced Religion Claim

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a prisoner?s Establishment Clause Claim as frivolous.

In June 2000, Arkansas prisoner James Munson was granted parole, contingent upon completion of a year long sex offender treatment program called Reduction of Sexual Victimization Program (RSVP).

Prior to beginning RSVP, Munson was told he would be required to admit to all allegations in a prosecutor?s charging report. He refused because the report contained a false statement. Despite his refusal, he entered RSVP in January 2001.

RSVP participants were required to recite a serenity prayer that is ?modeled on the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Twelve Steps and repeatedly referred to ?God.?? Munson objected. A prisoner facilitator told him that he?d be expelled from RSVP if he refused. When he did refuse, he was assigned extra work detail.

An RSVP Counselor told Munson she did not approve of his interracial marriage and would have him removed from RSVP because of it. Two weeks later, in September 2001, Munson was removed and RSVP staff wrote the Post Prison Transfer Board (PPTB), explaining that Munson was ?discharged from the RSVP for failing to make sufficient progress.?

Munson filed suit against RSVP and PPTB alleging several violations on his constitutional rights. The district court dismissed the complaint as frivolous under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the PPTB claims but remanded the action for the district court to address the RSVP claims and whether Munson exhausted his administrative remedies. See: Munson v. Norris, 67 Fed Appx. 383 (8th Cir. 2003).

On remand, the district court refused to appoint counsel or compel discovery by Defendants. An evidentiary hearing was held but only Munson testified. The court dismissed the complaint on the merits.

The Eighth Circuit found that Defendants waived the exhaustion defense. It then concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying appointment of counsel, refusing to compel discovery, or taking only Munson?s testimony.

The court affirmed the denial of all but Munson?s serenity prayer recital claim. The court found that ?the district court?wrongly analyzed the First Amendment claim under the Free Exercise Clause instead of the Establishment Clause.? Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992) and Murphy v. Missouri DOC, 371 F3d 979 (8th Cir. 2004). As such, the court remanded for reconsideration of that claim. See: Munson v. Norris, 435 F.3d 577 (8th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal cases

Munson v. Norris

Munson v. Norris