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Virginia Prison’s Policy Requiring Physical Indicia of Faith for Religious Sincerity Held Unconstitutional; Suit Settles for $3,795

Virginia Prison’s Policy Requiring Physical Indicia of Faith for Religious Sincerity Held Unconstitutional; Suit Settles for $3,795

by David M. Reutter

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated a summary judgment order in favor of prison officials entered in a lawsuit challenging a prison policy that conditioned a prisoner’s request for religious accommodation on his possession of physical items demonstrating his faith.

Red Onion State Prison (ROSP) in Pound, Virginia implemented a policy in 2010 that made eligibility to participate in the Muslim month-long daytime fast of Ramadan dependant on a prisoner having physical indicia of the Islamic faith – such as a Qu’ran, kufi, prayer rug or written religious materials obtained from the chaplain’s office. The policy was implemented after half the prisoner population at ROSP signed up for Ramadan and prison officials later determined that a significant number were not practicing Muslims.

Prisoner Gary Wall observed Ramadan in 2008 and 2009 while in a Virginia prison. He also received “common fare” meals at ROSP to satisfy his religious beliefs. When he requested to participate in the 2010 Ramadan observance, ROSP officials left him off the list after he was unable to produce physical indicia of the Islamic faith. To prison staff, the lack of such items meant a prisoner was insincere in his religious beliefs.

Wall showed prison officials a state court judgment that indicated his personal property had been lost during his transfer to ROSP, and noted he was receiving common fare meals and had previously participated in Ramadan. James Wade, ROSP’s food service director, said “that don’t mean nothing” in response.

On the first morning of Ramadan, August 11, 2010, Wall did not eat breakfast and concealed a portion of his meal to eat after sundown, to comply with the requirements of the Ramadan fast. Prison officials discovered the food but did not consider that to be proof of Wall’s sincerity of faith; rather, they threatened to charge him with possessing contraband. “Faced with choosing between starvation and sanctions, Wall ate during the day and violated his religious beliefs,” the Fourth Circuit wrote.

On August 21, Assistant Warden Robert Rowlette visited Wall’s cell and asked if he wanted to be placed on the Ramadan list if it could be proven his belongings were lost. Wall said he did but Rowlette later revoked the offer, claiming Wall had stated he would pursue the matter in court.

The district court found Wall’s lawsuit moot after he was transferred from ROSP and the prison changed its Ramadan policy in September 2011, and held the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on his claim for monetary damages. The Fourth Circuit reversed.

First, with respect to mootness, the appellate court found the defendants had failed to meet their “heavy burden” of establishing it was “absolutely clear” the 2010 Ramadan policy would not be reinstated. It noted that ROSP had implemented three separate policies since 2009, indicating “some degree of doubt that the new policy will remain in place for long.” As such, Wall’s Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) claim could proceed, as his retransfer to ROSP meant he was again subject to the prison’s policies.

The Court of Appeals also found ROSP’s 2010 Ramadan policy failed the Turner v. Safley reasonableness test. Additionally, the Court held its circuit precedent established that prisoners “are entitled to religious dietary accommodations”; thus, Wall’s First Amendment claim was well founded and prison officials were not entitled to qualified immunity.

“In sum, viewing the current record in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the defendants’ application of the 2010 Ramadan policy to Wall was unconstitutional,” the Fourth Circuit concluded. “The defendants relied exclusively on a narrow set of parameters while ignoring obvious indications of the sincerity of Wall’s beliefs. The First Amendment demands a more reasoned approach, even within the difficult confines of a prison environment.” See: Wall v. Wade, 741 F.3d 492 (4th Cir. 2014).

Following remand, the case settled on April 9, 2014, with prison officials agreeing that Wall “will be allowed to participate in any future religious fast or religious activity for which he qualifies without regard to his removal from the Ramadan program in 2010.” The defendants agreed to pay Wall $3,795, a portion of which went to cover filing fees owed to the district court. Lastly, prison officials agreed “that any policy requiring a sincerity requirement for inmates wishing to participate in Ramadan shall not be based solely upon a requirement that the inmate show possession of tangible religious property pertaining to the Muslim faith, such as a kufi, a Qu’ran, a prayer rug, or religious pamphlets.”

Wall litigated the case pro se in the district court, and was represented on appeal by attorney Elizabeth Scott Turner. See: Wall v. Wade, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Vir.), Case No. 7:11-cv-00191-JLK-RSB.


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Wall v. Wade

Wall v. Wade