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Second Circuit Reverses Denial of RLUIPA Dietary Claim

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s dismissal of the religious diet claims of two New York prisoners who practiced a religious faith called “Tulukeesh.”

In 2003, New York prisoner Tyheem Keesh sought permission to practice his religion, Tulukeesh. Prison officials said he could practice in his cell. He then informed the chaplain “that the dictates of Tulukeesh were set forth in the book ‘Holy Blackness,’ which imposed various dietary obligations .... Tulukeesh also requires ... members to engage in sparring, and prohibits them from appearing nude in front of non-members.”

Pursuant to DOC Directive 4202, prison officials prohibited Keesh from practicing in a group setting. He protested, claiming that the ban on group services violated the rules of “Holy Blackness” and deprived him of the right to practice his religion. Keesh was allowed to eat a “religious alternative” diet, which included “non-red-meat and non-pork-based meals.”

Fellow prisoner Jesus Jova also “requested to change his religious designation to Tulukeesh, and demanded that the Defendants accommodate his practice ... in the same manner as Keesh ....”

Between January and July 2004, Keesh and Jova wrote letters and filed grievances concerning the denial of their religious practices by prison officials. They also alleged that they were subjected to retaliation.

In July 2004, prison officials searched their cells and “confiscated copies of ‘Holy Blackness’ and materials showing that Keesh, seeking to distribute the book, had contacted a self-publishing company.” Both prisoners were disciplined for violating rules that prohibited contraband, unauthorized organization, solicitation of goods, practicing martial arts and sparring. Keesh was told that Directive 4202 prohibits proselytizing, and that “his actions were tantamount to proselytization.”

Keesh and Jova continued to file grievances and request the return of their copies of “Holy Blackness.” After another cell search, Keesh again alleged retaliation.

Prison officials refused to return “Holy Blackness,” deciding that “the book would remain with the prison chaplain and Keesh, Jova, and any other adherent [to Tulukeesh] could seek permission to read it.”

Keesh and Jova again claimed “that the tenets of Tulukeesh required that they eat only a complex, highly regimented non-soybean-based vegan diet, and that, because the Defendants had not provided one, they continued to experience health problems.”

Jova and Keesh sued in federal court alleging several violations of their rights under the Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on all claims. On appeal, the Second Circuit reversed as to the plaintiffs’ RLUIPA dietary claims.

The appellate court first found that Jova and Keesh were not provided the proper summary judgment notice, but that such error was harmless because “the record indicates that Plaintiffs were fully aware of the requirements of summary judgment.”

The Court of Appeals concluded “that the majority of Defendants’ practices satisfy the ‘least restrictive means’ standard” of RLUIPA. “Directive 4202 strikes a delicate balance between respecting inmates’ demands to participate in congregational activities while ensuring that those meetings do not serve as proxies for gang recruitment or organization.” The denial of the “demand to spar and receive professional martial arts training is the least restrictive means of furthering Defendants’ compelling interests of safety and institutional security,” the Court continued.

The Second Circuit found, however, that “Plaintiffs’ dietary demands present a more complex issue.” Since “the record fails to show that the religious alternative menu ... is the least restrictive means of furthering the Defendants’ compelling interests,” the appellate court determined that “the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the Defendants as to this issue was incorrect.” See: Jova v. Smith, 582 F.3d 410 (2d Cir. 2009), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Jova v. Smith