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First Circuit Holds RLUIPA Does Not Provide Relief from Transfer to Remote Prison Where Opportunities for Religious Exercise Are Limited

The First Circuit has held that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc et seg., does not provide a basis for relief where a prisoner's opportunities for the exercise of religion are limited due to his or her transfer to a prison that is too remote for religious volunteers to reach.

In December 2000, Seth Bader, an Orthodox Jew serving a life sentence for murder without the possibility of parole, was transferred from the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord ("NHSP-Concord") to the Northern Correctional Facility located in Berlin, New Hampshire ("NCF-Berlin"). At NHSP-Concord, Bader was able to participate in Jewish religious activities on a regular basis because a local rabbi, as well as other outside volunteers, visited the prison. At NCF-Berlin, by contrast, the remote location of the prison made it all but impossible for volunteers to conduct services or otherwise minister to Bader.

Bader was transferred because Major John Fouts, the director of security at NHSP-Concord, was concerned that Bader had "undue influence" in certain areas of the prison and was potentially developing relationships with staff that he could later exploit. Fouts had written up Bader for being in possession of contraband (classical music CDs); the charge was later dismissed when it was determined that the alleged contraband had been given to Bader by staff.

Bader filed suit alleging that his transfer to NCF-Berlin violated his rights under RLUIPA. He sought injunctive relief requiring his return to NHSP-Concord.

After holding a hearing, the district court denied Bader's request for a preliminary injunction. It reasoned that it was not the transfer to NCF-Berlin, but rather the inability of volunteers to travel to the prison, that prevented Bader from receiving religious services: "[T]hat failure of volunteers to appear, as long as their visits are not prohibited by an action of government, does not give rise to a RLUIPA claim."

On appeal, the First Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling. While noting that "RLUIPA provides greater protection to inmates' free-exercise rights than does the First Amendment," it rejected the suggestion that RLUIPA's enactment was somehow "meant to govern the siting of prisons, general policies of assigning prisoners, or determining transfers, or the failure to assign prisoners by religion."

In dicta, the Court observed that it was neither wise nor charitable to keep Bader at NCF-Berlin indefinitely. It suggested that New Hampshire consider transferring Bader back to NHSP-Concord. One can only hope that New Hampshire will look favorably upon this judicial request for compassion. See: Bader v. Wrenn, 1st Cir. No. 11-1634, filed 3/29/12.

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Related legal case

Bader v. Wrenn