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Ninth Circuit Remands RLUIPA Claim for Group Religious Worship in Maximum Security Jail

Ninth Circuit Remands RLUIPA Claim for Group Religious Worship in Maximum Security Jail

The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has held that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a prisoner seeking group worship in the maximum security section of a jail was entitled to have his religious rights balanced against jail security concerns, rather than be subjected to a blanket ban on all group worship irrespective of less restrictive means.

Darin Greene was housed in the maximum security section of the Solano County, California jail, awaiting trial on charges of terroristic threats and false imprisonment. His requests to have a classroom made available at the jail for the purpose of conducting group religious services was denied due to a blanket policy of movement restriction for high-security prisoners. He attempted to conduct Bible study by yelling to other prisoners through the corner edge of his cell door, but was rebuffed by staff and other prisoners who were bothered by the noise.

Greene sued jail Lt. Peggy Rourk in U.S. District Court (E.D. Cal.) under the RLUIPA, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq., claiming the blanket restriction on group worship services violated his rights. The district court granted summary judgment to Rourk and dismissed the case when it found that denying Greene’s request for group worship did not “substantially burden his ability to exercise his religion,” because he “was not required to act contrary to [his] religious beliefs. ... Moreover, alternative means for exercising his religion remained available to [him].”

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit read the RLUIPA more expansively, focusing on the statutory language “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” Thus, it was not the religion itself but the exercise of religion that controlled. In this case, Greene was able to have his own religious thoughts without restriction, but could not exercise his religion through dialogue with other prisoners due to the blanket jail policy against group worship services.

In fact, while Rourk argued that Greene could not use the shield of RLUIPA to name a time and place in the jail to conduct group services, Rourk admitted that several maximum security prisoners were permitted time in the law library, which had occurred without incident. Thus, it appeared there might be a less restrictive alternative means to satisfy Greene’s religious rights, and it was error for the lower court to grant a flat denial without a reasoned weighing under the four-part balancing test of Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987).

The Ninth Circuit held that RLUIPA’s plain language compelled the conclusion that Greene’s “religious exercise” issue was group worship services, not Christianity. As such, the jail’s blanket policy “substantially burdened his ability to exercise his religion,” and summary judgment against Greene on this issue was inappropriate. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for the district court to conduct a Turner analysis.

However, the Ninth Circuit was quick to add that “nothing in our opinion should cast doubt on the fact that prison officials may, under certain circumstances, substantially burden a prisoner’s ability to engage in religious exercise. But in light of RLUIPA, no longer can prison officials justify restrictions on religious exercise by simply citing to the need to maintain order and security in a prison. Prison officials must show that they ‘actually considered and rejected the efficacy of less restrictive measures before adopting the challenged practice.’ If prison officials meet that standard, the prison regulation passes muster under RLUIPA, regardless of the burden it imposes on religious exercise.” See: Greene v. Solano County Jail, 513 F.3d 982 (9th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Greene v. Solano County Jail