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Tenth Circuit Rules Denial of Halal Diet May Violate RLUIPA

by Mike Brodheim

The denial of a halal diet to a Muslim prisoner may violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc to 2000cc-5, the Tenth Circuit held on April 2, 2010.

Proceeding pro se, Oklahoma state prisoner Madyun Abdulhaseeb (a/k/a Jerry L. Thomas) filed suit in federal court in 2005, alleging 17 claims pursuant to RLUIPA and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 concerning his conditions of confinement. The district court dismissed eight of those claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, then granted summary judgment to the defendants on the remaining claims.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit appointed counsel for the purpose of supplemental briefing on the issue of what constitutes a “substantial burden” on religious exercise in the RLUIPA context. After oral argument, the Court of Appeals vacated the district court’s judgment with respect to two of Abdulhaseeb’s RLUIPA claims – that he was denied his requests 1) for a halal diet by officials at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary (OSP) and 2) for halal meat for an Islamic feast (Eid al-Adha) by officials at the Great Plains Correctional Facility (GPCF).

With respect to those claims, on which the district court had granted summary judgment to the defendants, the Tenth Circuit found the record insufficient to determine whether the burden on Abdulhaseeb’s religious exercise was – as required to defeat a claim brought under RLUIPA – 1) justified by a compelling governmental interest and 2) the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

The appellate court, noting that Abdulhaseeb remained in the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC), that he had sued (among others) the ODOC Director, and that the denial of his requests for halal food was based on ODOC policies, rejected the suggestion that Abdulhaseeb’s claims had been mooted by his transfer from both GPCF and OSP.

The Tenth Circuit also rejected the suggestion that Abdulhaseeb’s rights were not violated because he could have either purchased or obtained donated halal foods. First, Abdulhaseeb was indigent. And if he weren’t, he couldn’t be forced to make what the Court of Appeals construed as a Hobson’s choice; i.e., choosing between essentials (such as medical treatment, for which ODOC prisoners are required to pay) on the one hand, and following the tenets of his faith on the other hand. In any event, ODOC policy mandated that food be brought in only by approved vendors, and the ODOC had not approved any vendors from which Abdulhaseeb could have purchased or obtained halal food.

Noting that RULIPA defines religious exercise to include “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief” and that the sincerity of Abdulhaseeb’s beliefs had not been questioned, the Tenth Circuit held, critically, that the issue before it was not whether a halal diet was compelled for Muslims generally but whether its denial substantially burdened Abdulhaseeb in particular.

Defining “substantial burden” on religious exercise to include the government’s placing substantial pressure on a religious adherent to engage in or refrain from conduct contrary to a sincerely held religious belief, the Tenth Circuit, construing Abdulhaseeb’s complaint liberally, concluded that forcing him to choose between eating a non-halal diet or not eating at all constituted a substantial burden to his sincerely held religious beliefs. The district court was instructed to appoint counsel for Abdulhaseeb on remand. See: Abdulhaseeb v. Calbone, 600 F.3d 1301 (10th Cir. 2010), cert. denied.

Following remand, the district court appointed Oklahoma City attorney Donald J. Gutteridge, Jr. to represent Abdulhaseeb. However, on February 22, 2011 the court granted Abdulhaseeb’s motion to remove Gutteridge as counsel.

The district court noted that Gutteridge had not disputed Abdulhaseeb’s complaint that “Gutteridge gave him no warning that he was to be deposed by the defendants in December 2010 or on January 24, 2011. Gutteridge has likewise not specifically disputed Abdulhaseeb’s contention that he (Gutteridge) has neither written nor talked to his client since September 2010, or Abdulhaseeb’s assertion that Gutteridge has ‘kept ... [him] ignorant of the developments of the case and [has] ... not provided [him] ... with copies of important documents filed in the case.’”

This case remains pending before the district court. See: Abdulhaseeb v. Calbone, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Okla.), Case No. 5:05-cv-01211-W.

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Related legal cases

Abdulhaseeb v. Calbone

Abdulhaseeb v. Calbone