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Kentucky Death Row Prisoners Win Appeal on Religious Accommodations

Kentucky Death Row Prisoners Win Appeal on Religious Accommodations

by Derek Gilna

On August 15, 2014, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of five death row prisoners in Kentucky who sued the director of the Department of Corrections (DOC) under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) for his denial of their Native American religious beliefs. The DOC had denied clergy visits, access to a sweat lodge and food deemed necessary for the prisoners’ annual faith-based powwow.

According to the appellate court, RLUIPA “prohibits state and local governments from placing ‘a substantial burden’ on the ‘religious exercise’ of any inmate unless they establish that the burden furthers a ‘compelling governmental interest’ and does so in the ‘least restrictive’ way. 42 U.S.C. Section 2000cc-1(a).”

The prisoners had initially filed administrative grievances that were denied, and prison officials won summary judgment at the district court level. The Sixth Circuit, acknowledging that “no one debates the sincerity of the inmates’ religious beliefs,” reversed and remanded on two issues and denied relief on the third, which sought monetary damages for RLUIPA violations. The Court of Appeals said the reasons cited by the DOC for denying religious accommodations were not persuasive and violated RLUIPA, finding that for a time the DOC had denied all clergy visits without apparent justification, then later changed its policy after the lawsuit was filed.

As to the first issue raised on appeal, whether or not RLUIPA granted a right to access a sweat lodge for faith-based ceremonies, the appellate court, noting that the prisoners had offered to pay for the sweat lodge, found the DOC provided no persuasive reasoning that justified the outright denial of the religious practice, given that other prisons in other jurisdictions had not experienced security problems with sweat lodges. The Sixth Circuit further questioned whether the DOC had properly responded to the prisoners’ grievances, and observed that affidavits from prison officials citing security concerns were created long after the prisoners’ grievances were filed.

In regard to the second issue, whether or not RLUIPA gives “inmates a right to buffalo meat and other traditional foods for a faith-based once-a year powwow,” the appellate court held that the DOC had imposed a “substantial burden” on the prisoners’ sincere religious beliefs, and that “RLUIPA ... represents an effort to protect religious liberties by statute – and to do so in a serious way.... (noting that the law should be ‘construed in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted by the [statute] and the Constitution’).”

On the third issue, the appellate court rejected monetary damages against the DOC under RLUIPA, citing Sossamon v. Texas, 131 S.Ct. 1651 (2011) [PLN, Aug. 2011, p.22] and noting that every other circuit court to address the issue had declined to award monetary damages. Accordingly, the case was remanded for further proceedings. See: Haight v. Thompson, 763 F.3d 554 (6th Cir. 2014).

Following remand, on September 23, 2014 the district court granted a preliminary injunction that allowed the prisoner plaintiffs access “to the special foods of buffalo, corn pemmican, and fry bread for their annual Powwow,” which they had “agreed to purchase and pay for” themselves. The case remains pending.


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Related legal cases

Haight v. Thompson

Sossamon v. Texas