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Fourth Circuit Finds Virginia Prisoner’s Religious Exercise Claim Meritorious

Fourth Circuit Finds Virginia Prisoner's Religious Exercise Claim Meritorious

by Michael Rigby

The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated and remanded a district court?s grant of summary judgment to prison officials who had denied a Virginia prisoner access to special Ramadan meals and religious services.

In 2002, Jack Lee, warden of Virginia's Keen Mountain Correctional Center, instituted a policy detailing procedures for the observance of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, during which adherents fast during daylight hours and attend special pre-dawn and post-sunset services.

According to the policy, prisoners approved to participate in the fast would receive special meals in the prison chow hall. The policy further stated that any prisoner caught eating during daylight hours would be barred from participating in the fast and, by extension, the morning prayer service.

In 2002, Ramadan ran from November 5 through December 4. Six days into the holy month, on December 11, prisoner Leroy Lovelace, who described his interactions with prison staff as "contentious," was denied his special evening meal. Staff informed him that his participation had been discontinued because Officer K. Lester had submitted an incident report alleging he had seen Lovelace eating in the prison chow hall at approximately 12:35 that afternoon.

Prison officials dismissed Lovelace's assertions that he had not broken his fast and that Lester was mistaken. As a consequence, Lovelace was prohibited from participating in the remaining 24 days of Ramadan.

After exhausting his administrative remedies Lovelace filed suit, pro se, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia against Warden Lee, Assistant Warden Gene Shinault, and Officer Lester. He asserted claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments (freedom of religion and due process, respectively) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc, et seq. The district court granted summary judgment to all three defendants on September 13, 2004, and Lovelace appealed.

The Fourth Circuit held that the district court had erred in granting summary judgment to Lester in his individual capacity on the RLUIPA and free exercise claims, and to Warden Lee in his official capacity.

The RLUIPA prohibits the government from imposing a "substantial burden" on the religious exercise of prisoners "unless the government demonstrates that the burden is 'in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest' and is 'the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.'" According to the appellate court, Lovelace's inability to fast or attend religious services constituted a "substantial burden" under the RLUIPA. As such, it was the government's responsibility to prove that the burden in question was the "least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest."

Moreover, according to the appeals court, it made no difference how this deprivation was characterized; i.e., as a disciplinary sanction. Thus, prison officials would have to provide some explanation as to why the policy was the least restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling interest.

With regard to Lester, the Fourth Circuit held that a genuine question existed as to whether he intentionally deprived Lovelace of his free exercise rights. The Court noted that Lester remained firm in his conviction that he had correctly identified Lovelace in the chow hall on December 11, 2002--until, that is, he was required to submit a sworn affidavit to the court nearly a year later. Lester then contended in his affidavit that he had simply misidentified Lovelace and that it was an honest mistake.

Contrary to Lester's assertion, however, evidence indicated that he had searched Lovelace's cell six months prior to the Ramadan incident; had "often monitored the chow hall line where Lovelace was required to identify himself at close range"; worked the control booth in Lovelace's housing unit; and had routine interaction with Lovelace on many occasions.

The appellate court further held that summary judgment was appropriate with regard to Warden Lee and Assistant Warden Shinault in their individual capacities because their actions suggested "only misconduct, not intentional conduct with regard to Lovelace's religious exercise rights." Summary judgment to Shinault in his official capacity was also appropriate, the appeals court concluded, because it was Warden Lee, not Shinault, who instituted the Ramadan policy.

Based on this reasoning, the Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's grant of summary judgment to Lester in his individual capacity and to Warden Lee in his official capacity, and remanded for further proceedings. See: Lovelace v. Lee, 472 F.3d 174 (4th Cir. 2006).

Upon remand, on August 24, 2007, the District Court again granted summary judgment in favor of Warden Lee as to Lovelace's RLUIPA and free exercise claims, finding that a "one strike" policy of removing prisoners who were observed breaking their fast from the special Ramadan meal schedule was both constitutional and did not violate the RLUIPA. The District Court reserved granting summary judgment to the Warden on Lovelace's procedural due process claim, pending proof that the DOC had instituted a policy requiring positive identification of prisoners accused of breaking their fast before they are removed from the Ramadan list.

The prison has since changed its Ramadan policy and now allows prisoners who are barred from participating in special Ramadan meals to still attend religious services. Lovelace's claims against Officer Lester were upheld and the case against Lester is pending. See: Lovelace v. Lee, USDC, WD VA, Case No. 7:03-cv-00395, 2007 WL 2461750.

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Lovelace v. Lee

Lovelace v. Lee