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Fifth Circuit: RLUIPA Does Not Create Individual Capacity Cause of Action

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) does not create a cause of action against defendants in their individual capacities. The Court also held that the denial of Christian chapel worship may violate RLUIPA and the First Amendment.

Leroy Harvey Sossamon III, a Texas state prisoner, filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights action in U.S. District Court against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). He alleged that the French Robertson Unit’s policy of forbidding congregational worship in the chapel, and prohibiting prisoners on cell restriction from attending religious worship ser-vices, violated his rights under the First Amendment and RLUIPA. The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on Eleventh Amendment immunity and qualified immunity barring damages, and held injunctive relief was improper under § 1983 and RLUIPA.

Sossamon appealed. The Fifth Circuit appointed counsel, then decided that his claims for injunctive relief on the cell restriction issue were moot because the TDCJ had ended its policy of prohibiting prisoners on cell restriction from attend-ing religious services. The Court then turned to Sossamon’s monetary damages claims.

The appellate court noted that RLUIPA was enacted pursuant to the spending clause. “Congressional enactments pursuant to the Spending Clause do not themselves impose direct liability on a non-party to the contract between the state and the federal government.”
Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that individual-capacity defendants may not be sued under RLUIPA. Thus, only injunctive and declaratory relief may be sought under that statute.
The Fifth Circuit found there were material issues of fact regarding Sossamon’s use of the chapel. He claimed that kneeling at the altar in view of the cross to pray and receive Holy Communion had a special significance and meaning for Christians. The defendants submitted a chaplain’s affidavit stating that was not a core requirement of Christianity. The appellate court said the affidavit missed the point. “Prison chaplains are not the arbiters of the measure of religious devo-tion that prisoners may enjoy or the discrete way that they may practice their religion,” the Court wrote.

The fact that religious services were conducted in multipurpose rooms in the individual housing buildings, or that the defendants had legitimate security concerns about the physical design of the chapel and the potential for mixing prisoners from various gangs which they kept separate in segregated housing areas, did not relieve them of their duty not to sub-stantially burden Sossamon’s religious rights.

The use of the chapel for secular purposes involving large numbers of prisoners weakened the defendants’ security argument. The Court of Appeals noted that the chapel could still be used for religious congregational activity on a rota-tional basis between the various housing areas without creating a security concern. Further, the defendants had not even attempted to accommodate Sossamon by using a portable altar and cross. Therefore, summary judgment on this issue was inappropriate under both RLUIPA and the First Amendment. However, the defendants were entitled to qualified im-munity from damages in their individual capacities for potential First Amendment violations.

The Fifth Circuit therefore reversed the district court’s judgment on the RLUIPA and First Amendment claims for in-junctive and declaratory relief related to the chapel-use issue, dismissed as moot Sossamon’s claims related to injunc-tive and declaratory relief on the cell restriction issue, and instructed the district court to vacate those portions of its ruling. The remainder of the summary judgment order was affirmed. See: Sossamon v. Texas, 560 F.3d 316 (5th Cir. 2009).

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari on May 24, 2010 on the question of “Whether an individual may sue a State or state official in his official capacity for damages for violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.” See: Sossamon v. Texas, 2010 WL 2025142. PLN will report the outcome.

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Related legal case

Sossamon v. Texas