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Fourth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Virginia Prisoner’s Religious Freedom Suit

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a Virginia prisoner’s civil rights action that raised claims related to his religious practices and medical care.

Prisoner Jesus Emmanuel Jehovah’s complaint alleged prison officials violated his free exercise rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by 1) prohibiting him from consuming wine during communion, 2) requiring him to work on Sabbath days and 3) assigning him non-Christian cellmates. He also alleged deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The Virginia federal district court overseeing the action dismissed Jehovah’s Sabbath, cell assignment and deliberate indifference claims under 28 U.S.C § 1915A and granted summary judgment to the defendants on the communion wine claim. Jehovah appealed.

The Fourth Circuit first addressed the Virginia Department of Corrections’ (VDOC) ban on communion wine. Jehovah “appears to adhere to his own particular brand of Christianity, citing to a version of the Bible written by himself,” the appellate court noted. His religious beliefs mandate “that he take communion by drinking red wine and consuming bread dipped in honey, olive oil, sugar, cinnamon and water.”

The parties agreed on appeal that the communion claim had been improperly dismissed by the district court for two reasons. First, the lower court had found during the motion to dismiss stage that prohibiting Jehovah from drinking wine with communion burdened the exercise of his religion. Based upon that finding, the parties did not brief the issue. Yet without giving Jehovah notice, during the summary judgment stage the district court held he failed to show the wine ban substantially burdened his religious exercise. When resolving a summary judgment motion on grounds not raised by a party, a court must first provide notice and a reasonable time to respond.

The parties also agreed that “the record is insufficient to support the conclusion that the wine ban is the least restrictive means to address the government’s purported security interest.” The Court of Appeals held that a reasonable jury could find “obvious” and “easy” alternatives to the ban that include 1) applying the same security measures used for medication to wine, and 2) applying the ban only to prisoners convicted of infractions involving stealing alcohol or who have a history of alcoholism.

As to the Sabbath-related claim, the Fourth Circuit found the district court had utilized an improper standard of review as to whether Jehovah had a right to obtain the requested relief. The facts tended to show “a substantial burden on his exercise of sincerely held religious beliefs”; therefore, the appellate court held Jehovah had pleaded sufficient facts and the dismissal of the claim was erroneous.

With respect to the cellmate issue, the district court determined that Jehovah had no right to choose a cellmate based on religious preferences or background. However, “the proper inquiry is whether and to what extent VDOC burdened Jehovah’s right to exercise his sincerely held religious beliefs by assigning him cellmates who did not share his religious views,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

Finally, regarding the Eighth Amendment medical care claims, there was no dispute that “Jehovah’s innumerable alleged symptoms constitute serious health issues.” He argued that prison doctors had “acknowledged some symptoms but ignored most, disregarded abnormal test results, and failed to treat any of his symptoms effectively.” Those factual allegations stated a claim that should not have been dismissed.

Accordingly, the district court’s order was reversed and remanded. See: Jehovah v. Clarke, 792 F.3d 457 (4th Cir. 2015). The Fourth Circuit issued an amended ruling that reached the same conclusion on August 11, 2015, and the case remains pending on remand. See: Jehovah v. Clarke, 798 F.3d 169 (4th Cir. 2015), cert. denied. 

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Related legal cases

Jehovah v. Clarke

Jehovah v. Clarke