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RLUIPA Explained in Tenth Circuit Decision re Denial of Sweat Lodge Access

RLUIPA Explained in Tenth Circuit Decision re Denial of Sweat Lodge Access

by David M. Reutter

On January 23, 2014, the Tenth Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment to prison officials in a civil rights action alleging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), related to denial of access to a sweat lodge – a space used for Native American religious ceremonies.

The suit was filed by Colorado prisoner Andrew J. Yellowbear, Jr. Several facts were undisputed: Yellowbear is an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, he is sincere in his religious faith and access to a sweat lodge is, to him, a form of religious exercise.

Yellowbear explained his religious belief is that a sweat lodge “is used to cleanse and purify our mind, our spirit, and our bodies ... upon leaving it is said that you are born again physically and spiritually.” He requested to use the prison’s existing sweat lodge but was denied access.

Prison officials argued that allowing Yellowbear, who was housed in a special protective unit, to access the sweat lodge in general population would be “unduly burdensome,” as it would create a costly security expense. He was not held in the protective unit due to disciplinary infractions, but rather as a result of threats made by other prisoners.

The district court accepted the defendants’ arguments and entered summary judgment against Yellowbear, who then appealed.

The Tenth Circuit flatly rejected the position of the prison officials based upon the existing record, and presented an extremely thorough history of events and considerations that led to RLUIPA’s implementation, as well as an outline of factors and standards that courts must consider when reviewing a RLUIPA claim.

The Court of Appeals examined the defendants’ asserted compelling interests in refusing Yellowbear access to a sweat lodge. The Court noted the contrast in their position that the “use of hot coals and fire” in sweat lodges are “inherently unsafe for use in a prison environment,” even though the facility had been operating a sweat lodge without “a clue suggesting a hint of trouble.”

The Tenth Circuit stated: “Put plainly, the argument advanced by the prison’s lawyers on appeal about the ‘inherent dangers’ of sweat lodges finds precisely no support in the evidence given by the prison’s officials in district court.”

Next, the appellate court considered the defendants’ position that allowing Yellowbear to use the general population sweat lodge would require “locking down a significant portion of the facility” to prevent him from having “contact with other non-protective custody inmates” who might harm him.

However, Yellowbear submitted evidence indicating that lockdowns occurred on a daily and sometimes hourly basis; for example, to transport “specially housed” prisoners to other parts of the facility. The prison officials failed to quantify their costs to accommodate Yellowbear’s exercise of religious rights, which raised an issue of under-inclusiveness.

“Why is this religious exemption offensive to the prison’s putatively compelling no-lock-down interest when other secular exemptions are not?” the Tenth Circuit asked.

The Court of Appeals also found that prison officials had failed to respond to Yellowbear’s suggested alternatives of letting him use the sweat lodge before the main yard was opened to the general population, or building a sweat lodge for the protective custody unit.

As the evidence in the record could lead a reasonable fact finder to find a RLUIPA violation, the district court’s summary judgment order was vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Yellowbear v. Lampert, 741 F.3d 48 (10th Cir. 2014).

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Related legal case

Yellowbear v. Lampert