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Fourth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of North Carolina Prisoner’s Lawsuit Over Celebration of Rastafarian Holy Days

On April 17, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit handed down an opinion holding that prison officials had not imposed a substantial burden on the religious practices of a North Carolina prisoner by denying his request to hold gatherings and communal feasts on four Ba Beta Kristiyan Rastafarian holy days because he had not identified any other North Carolina prisoner who shared his faith and would attend the celebrations.

North Carolina state prisoner Anthony Wright was inducted into the Ba Beta Kristiyan sect of Rastafarianism while incarcerated in New York in 2003. The sect was founded in the 1980s by Abuna Ammanuel Foxe, who served as the Rastafarian chaplain for the New York prison system for many years.

In 2009, Wright was arrested for murder in North Carolina. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

At Central Prison, Wright led weekly Rastafarian gatherings of three to 13 prisoners that were sometimes canceled because no one showed up. In 2014, prison officials permitted Rastafarian prisoners a special religious observance on August 17.

Wright requested permission to celebrate four holy days, attaching a Ba Beta Kristiyan website printout listing three holidays and four holy days—none of which were August 17—and stating that “most of the holy days are celebrated with various food and drink, such as vegetables, rice, fish and wine.” Prison officials denied the request, noting that the holidays and holy days were specific to the Ba Beta Kristiyan sect, not to Rastafarians in general.

Wright filed a pro se federal civil rights action against prison officials alleging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the First Amendment. The court asked North Carolina Prison Legal Services to represent Wright. After a bench trial, the court found that the defendants did not substantially burden Wright’s religious practice.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit noted expert trial testimony that other Rastafarian sects do not hold feasts, eat meat or drink wine, and some do not celebrate the holidays and holy days.

Although the district court erred in its analysis, the conclusion that defendants had not imposed a substantial burden on Wright’s religious practice was correct. Further, Wright had requested communal gatherings and feasts but failed to show that any other Rastafarian at any North Carolina prison would have joined his gatherings. Since it was his burden to prove that the gatherings and feasts would have occurred but for the denial and he failed to do so, the court affirmed the judgment of the district court. See: Wright v. Lassiter, __ F.3d __ (4th Cir. 2019), No. 18-6320

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Related legal case

Wright v. Lassiter