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Religious Diet Qualified Immunity Test Outlined by Seventh Circuit

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that when determining whether a prison official is entitled to qualified immunity for refusing a prisoner’s request for a religious diet, the district court must determine whether the official used the tenets of the religion to deny the request or used those tenets to evaluate whether the prisoner was seeking the diet for personal rather than religious reasons. The case settled following remand in May 2013.

Mondrea Vinning-El, a prisoner at Illinois’ Pinckneyville Correctional Center, asked 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 denied the request, observing that the tenets of that religion require a non-pork diet which can include dairy products and many kinds of meat and fish. Contending that his religious beliefs required a vegan diet no matter what other practitioners of the religion believe, Vinning-El filed suit in federal court against Sutton and the prison’s warden, John D. Evans, in 2005.

The defendants moved for summary judgment. The district court granted summary judgment on Vinning-El’s Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) claim and denied it as to his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim. The defendants filed an interlocutory appeal, contending they were entitled to qualified immunity.

After filing suit, Vinning-El was transferred to another prison that provided him with a vegan diet; this mooted his claim for injunctive relief, and his claim for monetary damages was the only relief remaining. Consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Sossamon v. Texas, 131 S.Ct. 1651 (2011) [PLN, Aug. 2011, p.22], the Seventh Circuit found RLUIPA does not provide for monetary damages; thus, the defendants prevailed on that claim. Also, Evans was entitled to summary judgment because he could not be held liable under a theory of supervisory liability.

As to Vinning-El’s First Amendment claim against Sutton, the appellate court wrote that if Sutton “refused to approve religious diets for inmates who differ on dietary questions from their churches’ leaders, he violated clearly established rules of constitutional law.”

However, “[a]lthough sincerity rather than orthodoxy is the touchstone, a prison is still entitled to give some considerations to an organization’s tenets,” the Seventh Circuit held. “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 had never made a determination on this question, and the case was therefore remanded for a hearing to resolve the issue of qualified immunity relative to Vinning-El’s sincerity of religious belief. See: Vinning-El v. Evans, 657 F.3d 591 (7th Cir. 2011).

Following remand the case settled on May 28, 2013 – after eight years of litigation – for a total of $150, with each party to bear their own costs and attorneys’ fees. Vinning-El was represented by the Chicago law firm of Kirkland & Ellis, LLP.

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