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Religious Diet Qualified Immunity Test Outlined

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that in determining whether a prison official is entitled to qualified immunity for refusing a prisoner a religious diet, the district court must know whether the official used the tenets of the religion to disqualify the prisoner, or if the official used those tenets to suspect the prisoner was seeking the diet for personal rather than religious reasons.
Mondrea Vinning-El, a prisoner at Illinois’ Pinckneyville Correctional Center, requested the prison’s chaplain, Rick Sutton, for a vegan diet to conform to the tenets of his religion, the Moorish Science Temple of America. Sutton turned him down, observing that the tenets of that religion require a non-pork diet that can include dairy products and many kinds of meat and fish. Contending his religious beliefs require a vegan diet no matter what other sects of the religion believe, Vinning-El sued Sutton and the prison’s warden, John Evans.
The defendants moved for summary judgment. The Illinois federal district court granted it on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) claim and denied it on a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim. The defendants field an interlocutory appeal, contending they are entitled to qualified immunity.
Since the suit was filed, Vinning-El was transferred to another prison that provides him a vegan diet, so a claim for monetary damages was the only relief open to him. The Seventh Circuit held RLUIPA does not make monetary damages available, so the defendants prevail on that claim. Evans was entitled to judgment because § 1983 does not authorize liability for “supervisory liability.”
As to the First Amendment claim against Sutton, the Seventh Circuit said that if he “refused to approve religious diets for inmates who differ on dietary questions from their churches’ leaders, he violated clearly established rules of constitutional law.”
“Although sincerity rather than orthodoxy is the touchstone, a prison is still entitled to give some considerations to an organization’s tenets,” the Seventh Circuit wrote. “For the more a given person’s professed beliefs differ from the orthodox beliefs of his faith, the less likely they are to be sincerely held.”
The district court never made a determination on this question, so the matter was remanded for it to hold a hearing to resolve the qualified immunity defense. See: Vinning-El v. Evans, 657 F.3d 591 (7th Cir. 2011).

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Related legal case

Vinning-El v. Evans