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Missing Ramadan Deadline Insufficient Cause to Deny Right to Attend

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has reversed the dismissal of a prisoner's free exercise of religion claim, finding that missing a sign-up deadline for Ramadan was an insufficient reason to deny a First Amendment right.

In 1995, Illinois state prisoner Blake Conyers was frisked as he left the prison chapel. Nothing was found but he was infracted for disruptive behavior, found guilty, and the verdict was affirmed on administrative appeal. Two months later he was found to be in possession of gang-related photographs for a second time. Even though the first possession conviction was expunged, Conyers received 90 days punitive segregation because of the second such conviction.

While serving his punitive segregation time, Conyers asked for late bagged dinners during the Fast of Ramadan. He missed the deadline by four days because he had no notice of the deadline, which was posted only for general population prisoners. The Fast of Ramadan does not occur at the same time each year. Conyers grieved the denial six months later, well past the 14-day deadline for doing so. His grievances were denied both on the merits and as untimely.

Conyers filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint which was dismissed on summary judgment for failure to exhaust state remedies as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a).

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of his first claim related to the frisk search outside the chapel, based on Conyers' admission that he didn't even try to file a grievance. The Court also rejected the contention that his subsequent disciplinary appeal should be deemed an adequate substitution for a grievance, finding that even if they allowed this, his first claim had no merit.

However, because the grievance for the Ramadan claim was not denied solely as untimely but also on the merits, the Court reversed the dismissal. The appellate court also addressed the merits of the State's summary judgment argument and found the evidence "too poorly developed to support a decision in their favor."

The Court further rejected the state's position that they were not to blame for Conyers' failure to anticipate Ramadan and thus sign-up for late dinners. Conyers did anticipate Ramadan but not a state-created sign-up deadline. The State offered no evidence of what additional efforts would be required to accommodate Conyers or why they would accommodate late sign-ups for newly-transferred prisoners but not Conyers. Instead, they rested "on the rigid and unsupported assumption that a sign-up deadline is a reasonable administrative requirement under any circumstance."

Finally, qualified immunity was also rejected because the law requiring a legitimate penological interest before infringing on the constitutional right to free exercise of religion was clearly established in the Seventh Circuit in 1990. The appeals court held that denial of late dinner meals during Ramadan for missing a sign-up deadline by four days did not serve such an interest. See: Conyers v. Abitz, 416 F.3d 580 (7th Cir. 2005).

On remand, the District Court denied both Conyers' and the defendants' motions for summary judgment on the First Amendment claims; however, Conyers' state law claims were dismissed. See: Conyers v. Abitz, USDC E.D. Wis., Case No. 01-C-1109; 2006 WL 3147402.

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Related legal case

Conyers v. Abitz