Fourth Circuit: Religious Headwear Policy Violated Virginia Prisoner’s Rights
by David M. Reutter
On November 7, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a Virginia prisoner successfully pleaded that a policy of the state Department of Corrections (DOC) substantially burdened his religious beliefs. That sent the case back to the district court to determine whether DOC’s subsequent policy change was sufficient to avoid liability.
The case was brought pro se by state prisoner David A. Richardson in 2018. He alleged that before it was changed, DOC policy governing when he could wear his skull covering violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. ch. 21C § 2000cc et seq.
At Deerfield Correctional Center, where he was held, Warden Tammy Williams decided prisoners could wear religious head coverings in the same manner as nonreligious head coverings. So Richardson, an adherent of the Nation of Islam, had to remove his Kuffi in places such as the dining hall, visiting room, and administrative buildings.
The prisoner also raised a challenge under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch. 126 § 12101 et seq., claiming his needs as a legally blind and deaf person were not accommodated. The federal court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted summary judgment for DOC on all claims raised by Richardson, and he appealed.
Taking up the case, the Fourth Circuit began by finding that DOC had taken many steps to accommodate Richardson’s disabilities, so it affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of his ADA claim. As for his RLUIPA claim, the Court noted that DOC procedures until 2018 granted the warden at each prison discretion to determine the times, locations, and circumstances in which personal clothing, including religious head coverings, could be worn. However, DOC changed this procedure after Richardson sued; state prisoners may now use religious headwear anywhere and at any time in a prison, unless removal is required for search by guards.
The district court ruled that this policy change hadn’t mooted Richardson’s challenge, since it could be reversed. But it said Richardson failed to show that the prior policy imposed a substantial burden on his religious exercise.
On appeal, the parties agreed Richardson’s adherence to the Nation of Islam satisfied his burden of proving that the head covering policy implicates his sincere belief – that he must wear a Kuffi at all times. Warden Williams said she “understand(s)” Richardson’s belief, the Fourth Circuit noted, so she conceded that he holds a sincere belief in wearing a Kuffi “in all areas of Deerfield.” With this, the Court found “that Richardson met his burden that the prior policy imposed a substantial burden” upon his religious belief.
Thus that portion of the district court’s order was vacated. The case was then remanded for the district court to determine whether DOC qualified for RLUIPA’s provision for “safe harbor” from litigation by changing its policy. On appeal, Richardson was represented by attorney Oren Missim Nimni of Rights Behind Bars in Washington, D.C. See: Richardson v. Clarke, 52 F.4th 614 (4th Cir. 2022).
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