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Sovereign Immunity Withstands RLUIPA; Jewish Succah may be Permissible Religious Exercise

Sovereign Immunity Withstands RLUIPA; Jewish Succah May be Permissible Religious Exercise

by David M. Reutter

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) does not waive a state’s Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity from suit for monetary damages. That holding by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 10, 2009 came in an appeal brought by South Dakota prison officials challenging a district court’s denial of their motion for summary judgment.

Before the appellate court were consolidated appeals in lawsuits filed by South Dakota prisoners James Van Wyhe and Charles Sisney. Van Wyhe sought monetary, injunctive and declatory relief for being deprived kosher meals for a period of time as a sanction for violating prison rules governing religious diets. Sisney sought similar relief for being denied his request to possess and use a succah, his request to have a tape player in his cell to study the Hebrew language, and his request for additional group religious and language study time. Both prisoners are Jewish.

On appeal, prison officials challenged the constitutionality of RLUIPA. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s conclusion that RLUIPA is constitutional under the Spending Clause. It found the statute provides for the “general Welfare of the United States” and Congress has incidental authority “to attach conditions on the receipt of federal funds, and [Congress] has repeatedly employed the power to further broad policy objectives by conditioning receipt of federal money upon compliance by the recipient with federal statutory and administrative directives.”

The Court of Appeals, however, held that South Dakota’s receipt of federal funds does not waive its sovereign immunity from suit for monetary damages. It rejected an opposite holding by the Eleventh Circuit, agreeing instead “with the analysis of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits that RLUIPA’s ‘appropriate relief’ language does not unambiguously encompass monetary damages so as to effect a waiver or sovereign immunity from suit for monetary claims under Section 3 by acceptance of the federal money.”

As to Van Wyhe’s suit, his declatory and injunctive claims failed because prison officials had changed their policy; likewise, the monetary claim under RLUIPA failed due to the appellate court’s ruling.

While Sisney could not seek monetary damages either, he still had surviving official capacity claims for injunctive and declatory relief. The Eighth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of summary judgment on Sisney’s tape player and study time claims. It held that the denials in those regards did not establish a substantial burden on a religious exercise.

When it came to Sisney’s request for a succah, which is a three-sided booth or tent constructed of a tarp and metal poles, the Eighth Circuit agreed that there were material facts in dispute as to the truth and sincerity of Sisney’s belief that a succah is “a mandatory part of the Sukkot Festival” and essential to the practice of his Jewish faith.

That claim, as well as a claim that prison officials retaliated against Sisney for filing his lawsuit, were beyond the appellate court’s jurisdiction in this interlocutory appeal. In all other respects, the district court’s denial of summary judgment was reversed. See: Van Wyhe v. Reisch, 581 F.3d 639 (8th Cir. 2009), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Van Wyhe v. Reisch