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Connecticut DOC Settles Five Percenters Religious Rights Suit

by Derek Gilna

The Connecticut Department of Corrections (DOC) has settled a federal lawsuit filed by a state prisoner and entered into a consent decree recognizing his religion. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc (RLUIPA), provides that prisoners may practice their sincerely-held religious beliefs, and it is the government’s burden to justify restrictions on religious practices.

DOC prisoner Kevin Harris, who also refers to himself as King Young God Nazair Allah, sought recognition for his preferred faith – the Nation of God and Earth (NOGE), also known as the Five Percenters.

The DOC declined, claiming that NOGE was not a religion, citing allegedly expert opinions that NOGE was a disruptive group and an organization that posed a security risk, and confiscating Harris’ religious materials. He exhausted his administrative remedies over the DOC’s refusal to recognize NOGE as a religion, then filed a federal complaint.

According to his lawsuit, “inmate adherents of the NOGE have been unable to (1) meet, pray and study with other adherents of the NOGE in the same manner that other religions recognized by the CT DOC are permitted; (2) purchase and wear a crown, which is similar to the ‘Kufi’ worn by Muslim inmates adorned by a tassel; (3) send, receive and possess NOGE literature,” and celebrate NOGE holidays and holiday meals as allowed for other religions.

Harris claimed the DOC had violated the Connecticut Religious Freedom Act and RLUIPA, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment, and sought an injunction against prison officials plus attorneys’ fees and costs.

After the conclusion of discovery, which showed that Harris’ allegations were correct and he had been denied the ability to practice his sincere religious beliefs, the DOC decided to resolve the case in May 2016 by entering into a settlement with Harris and two other prisoners who had filed similar lawsuits.

Pursuant to the settlement, DOC officials agreed that the observances and practices of NOGE by state prisoners “shall be deemed to be religious in nature...,” and that NOGE “shall be removed from the DOC’s list of Disruptive Groups....” Further, “The DOC shall promptly return to the Plaintiffs any NOGE materials that remain in the possession or control of the DOC which were previously confiscated from the Plaintiffs or withheld from delivery to the Plaintiffs....”

Connecticut state prisoners who adhere to the NOGE religion will be allowed to practice their faith to the same extent as other prisoners, including individual and group worship, possessing and using NOGE written materials, possessing and using religious items such as head coverings and pendants, and being allowed to observe four special religious holidays each year.

Harris’ attorneys agreed to forgo filing a petition for attorneys’ fees, which could have been tens of thousands of dollars, provided the DOC complies with the settlement agreement. The federal district court maintained jurisdiction to enforce the terms of the settlement for three years, and granted final approval on February 21, 2017 following a nine-month initial trial period. Harris was represented by the Bridgeport law firm of Cohen and Wolf, P.C. See: Harris v. Quiros, U.S.D.C. (D. Ct.), Case No. 3:15-cv-00165-SALM.