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Nevada Muslim Prisoner Wins Suit Over Denial of Jumu’ah Prayer

by Harold Hempstead

On June 14, 2022, the federal Court for the District of Nevada granted summary judgment to a Muslim state prisoner, agreeing with him that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) violated his constitutional rights by restricting his ability to participate in Jumu’ah prayer.

While held at Lovelock Correctional Center (LCC) in 2018, Said Elmajzoub asked Chaplain Scott Davis to “schedule time early Friday afternoons for Plaintiff and other Muslims to gather for Jumu’ah,” according to the complaint he later filed. Because other prisoners had already scheduled use of the prison chapel, he was refused and offered a time on Friday mornings or later on Friday afternoons instead.

That’s not when good Muslims hold Jumu’ah, however. So in August 2018, Elmajzoub filed an informal grievance, asking to hold the prayer service in any available space. LCC Caseworker Marc LaFleur said no, adding that DOC Administrative Regulation (AR) 810 did not require Jumu’ah prayer to be held at a specific time.

Elmajzoub followed up with a first-level grievance in October 2018, pointing out the AR 810 did in fact mention specific times for the requested prayer. LCC Warden Renee Baker responded by reiterating times available for Jumu’ah, which the prisoner had already rejected.

In December 2018, Elmajzoub submitted a second-level grievance. But DOC Deputy Director of Programs Kim T. Thomas told him he already had an answer, pointing to the responses to his first two grievances.

On August 1, 2020, in a partial settlement reached in another case before the Court, the chapel schedule was changed to permit Jumu’ah at an appropriate time on Friday afternoons. See: Shaw v. Davis, USDC (D.Nev.) Case No. 3:18-cv-00551. “Changing the schedule was simple,” the Court recalled, “implemented with no evidence of security issues or negative feedback from staff or inmates.”

Before that, though, Elmazjoub filed suit in the Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accusing DOC officials of violating his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. He also made a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The Court screened that complaint and ordered a stay in DOC policy on March 7, 2020, lifting it the following November 24, when it observed that mediation in the case had failed to reach an agreement between the parties. See: Elmajzoub v. Davis, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 260823 (D. Nev.); and 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 220271 (D. Nev.).

Both parties then moved Judge Miranda M. Du for summary judgment. On May 13, 2022, Magistrate Judge Craig Denney issued a Report and Recommendation (R&R) denying Defendants’ motion and granting Elmajzoub’s request on his RLUIPA claim. See: Elmajzoub v. Davis, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89179 (D. Nev.).

The next month, when Judge Du took up the R&R, she began by noting neither party filed an objection, meaning the Court was “not required to conduct ‘any review at all,’” citing Thomas v. Am, 474 U.S. 140 (1985) and U.S. v. Reyna-Tapia,328 F.3d 1114 (9th Cir. 2003).

The Court agreed with the Magistrate Judge that Defendants substantially burdened Elmajzoub’s religious practice without a compelling safety or security interest to justify it. Even if there were such an interest, Defendants did not achieve it by the least restrictive means, “particularly given the feasible alternatives,” the Court said, citing Johnson v. Baker, 23 F.4th 1209 (9th Cir. 2022). [See: PLN, Aug. 2022, p.22.]

“Moreover,” the Court continued, other DOC prisons “were able to accommodate … Jumu’ah prayer services during early Friday afternoons.” And since “a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Defendants’ conduct violated [Elmajzoub’s] clearly established constitutional rights,” they were not entitled to qualified immunity, the Court added, citing Gordon v. City of Orange, 6 F.4th 961 (9th Cir. 2021).

Accordingly, Elmajzoub was granted summary judgment on his RLUIPA claim. But since it was unclear whether the Jumu’ah services that began in August 2020 had been reinstated after they were interrupted by COVID-19 lockdowns that fall, the Court ordered additional briefing to make sure that Elmajzoub gets the injunctive relief he deserves.

Elmajzoub was represented by Las Vegas attorney Allen Lichtenstein. See: Elmajzoub v. Davis, 2022 U.S. Dist. Lexis 105849 (D. Nev.). 

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