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Kosher Diet Denial Reasonable, Religious Headwear Confiscation Not

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals vacated and remanded in part a New York federal district court’s summary judgment on a §1983 complaint against the New York State Department of Correctional Service (DOCS). In the complaint Arrello Barnes, a prisoner, alleged that the defendants violated the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when they denied his request to receive Kosher meals and confiscated his religious head covering as contraband.

The uncontested facts show that in 2004 DOCS refused to provide Barnes Kosher meals as requested because he was registered as a Hebrew Israelite, and DOCS’s policy only provided Kosher meals for Jewish prisoners. The Second Circuit ruled that it was clearly established that a prisoner had a right to a diet that adhered to his religious beliefs; however, denial in this case was not unreasonable because it was authorized by the defendants’ published policy. That policy was changed because of Barnes’ administrative grievances, and Barnes was then provided the Kosher meals. The court concluded that since the actions were not unreasonable, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity, and the district court’s summary judgment was affirmed.

Barnes’ complaint, that the 2007 confiscation of his religious headwear violated his Free Exercise Right, resulted in an order vacating and remanding to the district court for further review. The defendants asserted that the confiscation was reasonable because DOCS’s policy stated that the Tsalot-Kob head covering in question was only authorized for use by prisoners registered as Rastafarian, and Barnes was registered in 2007 as Jewish. The Second Circuit concluded that the officer who seized the head covering may not have acted unreasonably because he followed the prison’s published policy.

However, the Second Circuit also recognized that it was clearly established that while prison officials were not obligated to provide religious head coverings, prisoners retained the constitutional right to possess and wear head coverings as protected by the Free Exercise Clause. Any burden on that right must be justified by a legitimate penological interest; the test used to determine if the Free Exercise protection attached is whether the person “sincerely held” that belief; and the determination of sincerity could not be based solely on the assessment by the New York Board of Rabbis.

Based on these well established provisions the Second Circuit held that while the confiscating officer may have acted reasonably in following DOCS policy, but “a different analysis may apply to those responsible for the policy.” The court found that Barnes’ sincerity in the religious exercise of wearing the Tsalot-Kob was uncontested, so a penological interest to burden the exercise of that right had to be provided by the policy makers, but none was given. This absence resulted in the district court’s reliance solely on the Board of Rabbis' assessment of sincerity even where Barnes’ sincerity was uncontested. In light of the absence of a penological interest on the record and standing law holding that there is no legitimate reason for DOCS to limit headwear to one religious denomination, the Second Circuit concluded that it could not assess the reasonableness of the policy makers' actions, so it vacated and remanded to the district court for further proceedings and development of the record.

See Barnes v. Furman, 629 Fed. Appx. 52 (2d Cir 2015)

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Related legal case

Barnes v. Furman