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Nevada Pays $75,000 for Religious Discrimination Claims of Prisoners in Episcopal and The Way Faith Groups

by David M. Reutter

On March 6, 2023, the Nevada Department of Corrections (DOC) reached an agreement with a group of state prisoners to settle claims that a change in chapel schedule substantially burdened the exercise of their religion, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the federal constitution, as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc, et seq.

Under terms of the settlement, DOC paid $75,000 to four of the prisoner-plaintiffs and agreed to schedule three weekly Episcopal religious services plus another three for The Way faith group. A picture of a wolf that was visible from the chapel was also removed from Lovelock Correctional Center (LCC).

The agreement resolved claims brought pro se in federal court for the District of Nevada by prisoners Norman Shaw, Joseph Cowart and Ansell Jordan, as well as former prisoners Charles Wirth and Brian Kamedula. They alleged that when Warden Renee Baker took over LCC on August 29, 2016, she sought to bring the chapel into strict compliance with DOC Administrative Regulation (AR) 810 to end alleged threats to prison safety and security caused by the “lack of supervision and increased foot traffic due to outcount religious services and services held outside the Chapel,” as the Court later recalled.

Under AR 810, DOC’s Religious Practice Manual governs chapel programs and activities. It defines “worship services” to mean “[a] weekly meeting time for each Faith Group consisting of up to at least one (1) hour. There is no entitlement beyond one (1) hour per week.”

Resolving the matter became the responsibility of Associate Warden of Programs Tara Carpenter and Chaplain Scott Davis, upon his hiring at the end of 2017. Davis informed prisoner faith leaders of a chapel schedule change effective February 1, 2018, telling them: (1) they were entitled to only one hour per week of chapel services; (2) prayer and Bible studies are not chapel activities and can be performed in prisoners’ cells; (3) outcount services were eliminated; (4) no services would be scheduled before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m.; and (5) culinary would no longer provide anything for religious services.

The schedule changes had a dramatic impact. Shaw and Kamedula claimed that for Episcopalian prisoners, it eliminated music practice, baptism and confirmation classes, weekly unction, “Preachers in Training” classes, and worship leader and Eucharistic training.  Jordan claimed that For Nation of Islam prisoners, the weekly Jumu’ah prayer services and yearly 30-day Ramadan services were eliminated. Cowart and Wirth, respectively, claimed services for The Way and KAIROS were eliminated because they were not recognized religions. The prisoners’ grievances were denied and they sued.

Both sides moved for summary judgment. On August 12, 2022, the Court accepted a magistrate’s recommendation to deny that motion by Defendants. Though it found the RLUIPA claims by Kamedula and Wirth were moot – because the law only allows injunctive relief, which their release from prison prohibited – the Court agreed with the magistrate and swatted away DOC’s attempt to refute Shaw’s argument, since “[w]hether Shaw could pray in his cell alone or could conduct other services outside the chapel is immaterial to whether Defendants substantially burdened his religious practice by changing the Chapel schedule and eliminating services.”

As to Jordan’s claim, though, the Court disagreed with the magistrate and found no admissible evidence to support Defendants’ contention that there is “considerable flexibility” in the time Jumu’ah prayer could take place. Jordan asserted that Jumu’ah prayer service must take place midday, so removing the Friday afternoon service from LCC’s chapel schedule substantially burdened his religious exercise, the Court determined.

The Court also noted that The Way is not a recognized Faith Group under prison policy; however, Defendants did not remove services for all non-recognized groups, so the claim survived. In denying summary judgment to Defendants, the Court found a genuine issue of material fact existed as to how Shaw, Jordan and Cowart could use alternative time slots in the chapel or even if giving them the ability to request additional time slots would nevertheless constitute a substantial burden on their religious exercise.

Moreover, Defendants’ actions were not the least restrictive means of furthering any legitimate security interest, the Court found, as evidenced by the fact that LCC returned without incident to the pre-February 2018 schedule after Baker and Carpenter’s departure from LCC. It also found Defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity, but it granted judgment to those whose only action was to deny the prisoners’ grievances. For the rest, summary judgment was denied and trial ordered on the prisoner’s Equal Protection, Establishment Clause, Free Exercise, conspiracy and retaliation claims. See: Shaw v. Davis, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 144298 (D. Nev.).

Jordan then reached a settlement agreement on September 22, 2022. The remaining parties proceeded to reach their agreement, which included a $22,500 payment for Shaw and $17,500 each for Kamedula, Wirth and Cowart. Thrice-weekly services were scheduled for both the Episcopal and The Way groups. Quarterly meetings were granted to KAIROS, plus a separate meeting with prison officials for Cowart to air his retaliation allegations. The Court retained jurisdiction for three years to enforce the agreement and its terms. See: Shaw v. Davis, USDC (D. Nev.), Case No. 3:18-cv-00551.