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Texas Prisoners May Have Right to Extra Storage Space for Religious Materials

by Matthew T. Clarke

A Texas court of appeals held that state prisoners may have a right to extra storage space for religious materials.

Jeffery Balawajder, a Texas state prisoner, brought suit in state court against the Texas prison system (TDCJ), alleging that his right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA), Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code § 110.001, et seq., was violated when prison officials refused to allow him additional storage space for his religious materials.

Balawajder, who practices the Hare Krishna faith, alleged that he was required by his religion to study the Hare Krishna scriptures, which consist of ?several hundred volumes of books.? Under TDCJ Administrative Directive AD-03.42, the personal property a prisoner is allowed to possess, with the exception of a few noncombustible items, must be stored in a closeable metal storage container not to exceed two cubic feet in size (e.g., a cube with 1.25-foot dimensions), which was much too small for Balawajder to store his religious books.

Balawajder requested additional storage space for his Hare Krishna library. He suggested that TDCJ allow him to purchase a closeable storage container of up to 25 cubic feet (e.g., a cube with 2.95-foot sides), place it in the chapel or other religious programming area, and allow him to ship it to his new prison should he be reassigned. He suggested that he only be allowed to store Hare Krishna literature and items associated with the study of said literature in the religious materials container, and that he be allowed brief daily access to the container. His request was denied, and Balawajder filed a grievance. The grievance and its appeal were denied. This suit followed.

TDCJ filed a motion for summary judgment alleging, as a matter of law, that AD-03.72 furthered a compelling government interest and was the least restrictive means of doing so as required by the TRFRA. The district court granted the motion and Balawajder appealed.

TDCJ conceded on appeal that preventing Balawajder from having access to his Hare Krishna library was a substantial burden on the free exercise of his religion, but claimed that TDCJ had a compelling government interest in treating all prisoners the same, and that a blanket ban on additional storage containers for religious materials was the least restrictive means of doing so. Balawajder countered that TDCJ already provided additional storage containers for educational and legal material for some prisoners. He noted that the TDCJ also gave some prisoners special religious holy days off work and special meals for religious purposes.
Thus, TDCJ already treated prisoners unequally for religious and other reasons.

The Court of Appeals held that Balawajder presented sufficient factual evidence to raise a fact issue on whether AD-03.71 furthers TDCJ?s compelling interests in limiting storage space for religious books, treating prisoners equally and minimizing the administrative burden on prison chaplains when he showed that AD-03.72 made exceptions for educational and legal materials and that special accommodations were made for holy days and diets for prisoners of other religions. Therefore, the order granting summary judgment was reversed and the case was returned to the trial court for further proceedings. See: Balawajder v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice-ID, 217 S.W.3d 20 (Tex.App.-Houston [1 Dist.], 2006), review denied.

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Related legal case

Balawajder v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice