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New Jersey Prisoner’s Suit Survives Seeking to Validate the Nation of Gods and Earth as a Religion

by David M. Reutter

On September 12, 2022, the federal court for the District of New Jersey denied a motion for summary judgment by the defendant New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) in a state prisoner’s claim alleging that designating the Nation of Gods and Earth (NOGE) a security threat group violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc, et seq.

The complaint was originally filed pro se in Middlesex County Superior Court in October 2017 by prisoner Morris Jackmon. Defendants removed the case to federal court and moved for summary judgment, accusing Jackmon of failing to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, as well as claiming that named defendants lacked personal involvement—and personal claims are barred by RLUIPA—and that NOGE is not a religion.

The Court detailed the conflicting facts related to PLRA exhaustion of remedies. Defendants presented DOC’s electronic records of requests and grievances Jackmon filed. He presented paper copies of documentation that he said proved those remedies were exhausted. Finding a material issue of fact existed, the Court denied without prejudice the motion for summary judgment as to that affirmative defense.

But the Court also dismissed with prejudice Jackmon’s claim for monetary damages because RLUIPA applies only to officials in their official capacity, not their individual capacity. Yet the official capacity RLUIPA claim against the Administrator and Associate Administrator of East Jersey State Prison for injunctive relief was allowed to proceed.

The Court then turned to determine whether Jackmon stated a claim. Defendants argued he did not “because the record demonstrates that NOGE is not a religion.” The Court said that to state a RLUIPA claim, a plaintiff must allege “(1) an unreasonable and substantial burden on a (2) sincerely held (3) religious belief.”

The Court noted that it has been “held that a religion, for purposes of the First Amendment, is distinct from a ‘way of life,’ even if that way of life is inspired by philosophical beliefs or other secular concerns,” as laid out in Wisc. v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972). However, citing Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961), the Court noted many religions in America “do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God,” including “Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others.”

During his deposition, Jackmon admitted that an NOGE adherent would not call it a religion because he “abhors” the term. “Religion” has promoted violence and crimes against humanity, they argue, so NOGE adherents reject the Western tradition of what religion is. Instead, Jackmon described NOGE as a “culture” or “God-centered culture.”

The Court said that “while NOGE is against the word ‘religion’ in the western sense, it still operates under a belief system centered around their belief in what God is.” Jackmon “testified his belief system is sufficiently similar to religious beliefs.” Thus, the record supported a conclusion that NOGE is a “religion” for RLUIPA purposes, and the motion for summary judgment was denied. See: Jackmon v. N.J. Dep’t of Corr., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 163817.

The Court appointed counsel for Jackmon on June 28, 2023, from attorneys with Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, PC, in Woodbridge. The case is still pending, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Jackmon v. N.J. Dep’t of Corr., USDC (D.N.J.), Case No. 2:18-cv-00149.

Similar cases have overturned prison system bans on NOGE in Virginia and Connecticut, and another case is proceeding in Texas, as PLN has reported. [See: PLN, May 2018, p.55; Apr. 2017, p.60; and May 2023, p.53.]  

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Related legal case

Jackmon v. N.J. Dep’t of Corr.