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Seventh Circuit Rules Wisconsin Prisoner’s Religious Rights Must be Honored

Seventh Circuit Rules Wisconsin Prisoner’s Religious Rights Must be Honored

by Derek Gilna

David A. Schlemm, a Navajo tribe member confined in a Wisconsin state prison, sought to exercise his right to practice certain religious rituals required by his faith. Those included celebrating Ghost Feast, wherein members of the tribe pray, dance and eat traditional foods, such as venison, to honor their ancestors.

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WDOC) denied that request and Schlemm’s other requests, including the right to wear a colored headband during religious services, and he filed suit in federal court under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc. The district court granted summary judgment to the WDOC but the Seventh Circuit reversed on April 21, 2015, finding a RLUIPA violation and ordering an injunction that required prison officials to provide Schlemm with venison and allow him to wear his headband during religious services.

RLUIPA provides that “No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution ... even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person – (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

The appellate court noted that the recent U.S. Supreme Court cases of Holt v. Hobbs, which involved restrictions on a Muslim prisoner who wanted to wear a beard [see: PLN, Aug. 2015, p.50], and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, “articulate a standard much easier to satisfy” than the previous substantial burden test set forth in Eagle Cove v. Woodboro, which had been used by correctional facilities to defend against RLUIPA claims.

“Schlemm says that the inability to eat game meat at the Ghost Feast has a serious effect, and the record is not so lopsided as to permit that contention’s rejection on summary judgment,” the Seventh Circuit wrote. However, “The Court stressed in Holt that the prison system has the burdens of production and persuasion on the compelling-interest and least-restrictive means defenses,” and Wisconsin officials had not met that burden.

“The prison’s willingness to allow external [food] platters for Passover and sweat lodges makes it hard to credit an argument that any culinary accommodation will bring the prison’s administration to its knees,” the Court of Appeals noted. The Court also found the WDOC had offered no evidence to support its argument that permitting Schlemm to wear a multi-colored headband or bandana would undermine the institution’s security interests. See: Schlemm v. Wall, 784 F.3d 362 (7th Cir. 2015).

Following remand and a recommendation from the Seventh Circuit, the district court appointed counsel to represent Schlemm. The court also issued a preliminary injunction directing prison officials to provide Schlemm with venison during the Navajo Ghost Feast and allow him to wear a headband in his cell and during religious ceremonies, “provided it does not contain the color red” – in order to allay concerns about gang symbols. The case remains pending.


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Related legal case

Schlemm v. Wall