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Eighth Circuit Court Considers Prison Religious Practices Suit

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in May 2012 per curiam affirmed the finding for the state in the Eastern District Court of Arkansas in which a Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) suit was brought against prison staff. The action, along with a collateral § 1983 claim, resulted from prison guards confiscating reading material and other religious paraphernalia during shakedowns of the cell of Warith T.A. Zajrael in the administrative segregation section of the East Arkansas Regional Unit (EARU).

Zajrael sued the EARU warden, assistant warden and a guard for violating his rights to exercise his religion. In the suit, Zajrael neglected to name the above three defendants in their personal capacity, which is where his cause started to unravel.

Absent naming defendants in their personal capacity, the presumption is that the suit is against the state, and section 1983 provides no cause of action against agents of the state acting in their official capacity. Likewise, sovereign immunity bars Zajrael’s claim for damages under RLUIPA.

The court declared Zajrael’s claim for injunctive relief under RLUIPA to be moot, as he had been transferred from the facility where the controversy existed, rendering him no longer subject to the policies he challenged, there being not live case or controversy.

District court granted summary judgment for the defendants and the Eighth Circuit court of Appeals affirmed. See: Zajrael v. Harmon, 677 F.3d 353 (8th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Zajrael v. Harmon