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Virginia Prisoner Defeats Summary Judgment, Settles Religious Diet Case

by Ed Lyon

Aaron Carter is a Virginia state prisoner; he is also a member of the Nation of Islam. Due to his religion’s dietary restrictions, he was enrolled in the prison system’s Common Fare program (CFP), which serves both halal and kosher meals.

On October 1, 2015, the CFP added fried foods to its menu. The Nation of Islam tells its adherents to “[s]tay away from eating fried foods,” thus Carter felt prison officials had breached their duty to serve a proper menu that adhered to his faith. On November 26, 2015, he was caught taking a Thanksgiving Day lunch from the regular serving line instead of his CFP meal. Consequently, he was suspended from the CFP for one year.

Carter grieved the suspension, arguing his agreement to participate in the CFP was already void due to the addition of fried foods. He then filed a pro se suit raising claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), alleging the prison had failed to accommodate his religious dietary needs.

Carter was transferred to a different prison while he litigated the case; the new facility refused to reinstate him in the CFP even after his one-year suspension ended. Nevertheless, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, finding he had “fail[ed] to disprove the reasonableness of the suspension policy” and there was no “genuine factual dispute as to whether his religious exercise was substantially burdened” due to the CFP menu.

Carter appealed.

The defendants initially argued he lacked standing. The Fourth Circuit disagreed in a January 8, 2018 decision, holding he had adequately shown standing to challenge both his suspension from the CFP and its altered menu that included fried food.

Justiciability was then addressed. The Court of Appeals held that although Carter’s one-year CFP suspension had expired, a court order to void or rescind it would result in his being able to participate in the CFP at his new facility “as soon as practical.”

On the complaint’s merits, the appellate court held the CFP’s addition of fried foods was a “genuine factual dispute,” thus it was error to grant summary judgment against Carter on his First Amendment and RLUIPA claims. The district court’s order was reversed and the case remanded. On February 21, 2018, prison officials agreed to settle the case by paying $2,000 in damages and reinstating Carter to the CFP within 60 days.

David M. Shapiro at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law represented Carter on appeal; he was represented before the district court by attorney Jeffrey Fogel. See: Carter v. Fleming, 879 F.3d 132 (4th Cir. 2018). 


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Related legal case

Carter v. Fleming