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California Housing Classifications May Burden Religious Freedom, but Constitutional Liability Overcomes Burden

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held a prisoner stated a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) that his classification as racially eligible to house with non-“Aryan” prisoners interfered with his religious practice.  The court, however, found prison officials have a compelling interest in avoiding invidious racial discrimination and potential liability under the Equal Protection Clause.

California prisoner Dennis Walker is a devout racist Aryan Christian Odinist.  He alleged the Odinist religion forbids integrating with members of other races other than their own and that as part of his religious practice he engages in a ritual known as “the spiritual circle of Odinist Warding” to communicate with his gods.  Integrated housing interferes with this ritual because the presence of a non-Aryan individual in his cell during the ritual would “pollute” the spiritual circle.

The district court dismissed the action for failure to state a claim and denied leave to amend.  The Ninth Circuit found the warding ritual plainly meets RLUIPA’s definition as a religious exercise.  He was clearly put under pressure to conform when he received a rules violation report and placed in administrative segregation by refusing integrated housing.  Thus, he showed his classification as racially eligible substantially burdens his religious exercise.

Prison officials contended their refusal was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling governmental interest to comply with constitutional restrictions on race-conscious action.  They pointed to Johnson v. California, 543 U.S. 499 (2005), which concluded California’s race-conscious celling policy violated The Equal Protection Clause.  [See PLN May 2011, p. 14.]

The Ninth Circuit held prison officials have “a compelling interest in complying with Johnson, so it concluded “that denying Walker’s requested exemption was the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling state interest.”  That denial is “the only way to avert potential constitutional liability.”

The court did note that if prison officials refused a request for time outside his cell to perform the warding ritual, “that might be the basis for a separate RLUIPA challenge.”  It also held Walker’s First Amendment claim failed for the same reasons as the RLUIPA claim, and since the pleading deficiency was properly denied.  The district court’s order was affirmed.  See:  Walker v. Beard, 789 F. 3d 1125 (9th Cir. 2015) Case No 1277460.

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Related legal case

Walker v. Beard