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Seventh Circuit: Catholic Prisoner’s Religious Diet Lawsuit Remanded

by David M. Reutter

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held a Catholic prisoner’s free exercise of religion was substantially burdened because he was denied a non-meat diet on Fridays and during Lent.
In 2003, Illinois state prisoner Brian Nelson sued Tamms Correctional Center chaplain Carl Miller, alleging violation of his rights under the First Amendment, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (IRFRA). He sought declaratory and injunctive relief plus monetary damages.

Nelson designated himself a Catholic when he entered prison in 1983. In the late 1990s he took a greater interest in his faith, and came to understand three methods of penance under Catholicism: giving alms, works of charity and acts of abstinence. Given his incarceration, Nelson reasoned his only practical forms of penance were prayer and abstaining from eating meat.

When he arrived at Tamms, a “supermax” prison, in 1998, Nelson requested a meatless diet on Fridays throughout the year as an act of penance. He said he would accept the prison’s vegetarian diet for that purpose. His request was denied by Chaplain Miller, a Lutheran minister, because it was unsupported by the Bible and was not a requirement in a “church document.”

In a series of grievances filed in 2002, Nelson requested a diet that followed the Rule of St. Benedict No. 39, which states that “everyone, except for the sick who are very weak, [should] abstain entirely from eating the meat of four-footed animals.” He noted that Muslims and Black Hebrew Israelites were automatically granted a diet substitution and not required to eat around meat on their tray. Requiring Nelson to do so without a substitute for the meat he was served, but refused to eat, resulted in three hospitalizations as his weight dropped from 161 pounds to 119.

A magistrate judge granted Miller’s motion for partial summary judgment in January 2007, and the district court ruled against Nelson on his remaining claims on March 31, 2008 following a bench trial.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit held the district court had correctly determined that Nelson failed to administratively exhaust the issue of a full-time non-meat diet, but that the narrow issue of a meatless diet on Fridays and during Lent had been exhausted.

The Court of Appeals found that Tamms’ dietary request procedural requirements substantially burdened Nelson’s religious rights. Following its previous precedents, the appellate court held, “[t]he term ‘religious exercise’ includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.”

“[A] clergy verification requirement forms an attenuated facet of any religious accommodation regime because clergy opinion has generally been deemed insufficient to override a prisoner’s sincerely held religious beliefs,” the Seventh Circuit wrote. Thus, Miller’s demand that Nelson show a religious requirement for a non-meat diet, and submit documentation to that effect, made the desired exercise of Nelson’s religious rights “effectively impracticable.”

Nelson submitted evidence that he was forced to forego adequate nutrition to comply with his sincerely held religious beliefs due to the prison’s failure to provide an alternative diet. That issue was remanded to determine whether Tamms’ dietary request procedure and Miller’s conduct were “in furtherance of a compelling government interest and that it was the least restrictive means.”

Nelson’s First Amendment establishment clause claim failed because the prison’s policies were not an “excessive en-tanglement” advancing or inhibiting religion. Also, since the warden at Tamms had ordered Nelson to receive a vegetarian diet in 2006, the injunctive relief claim was moot, and RLUIPA did not allow for recovery of monetary damages. Damages under IRFRA must be determined by the Illinois Court of Claims, which has exclusive jurisdiction over such matters, thus that claim was dismissed.

The district court’s judgment was reversed in part and affirmed in part and the case remanded for another trial, which is pending. Nelson is represented by attorney Alan Mills at the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago. See: Nelson v. Miller, 570 F.3d 868 (7th Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Nelson v. Miller