Wednesday, August 03, 2005

What to do when the prisoner-plaintiff changes religions, perhaps to get better food

In Hawkins v. Mills, Magistrate Judge Urbanski made his recommendations about an interesting prisoner case. He concluded, as an initial matter, that the outcome of prior claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 did not estop the plaintiff from the assertion of his current claims, because in the first place, the discussion of the merits by Judge Quillen was unnecessary once he had determined correctly that the only defendant in the first case, the Commonwealth, was immune. Second, the plaintiff had switched religions shortly before filing the first case, but had taken subsequently some additional steps to join the faithful, so to speak, suggesting the possibility that if he was not sufficiently committed previously, the changed circumstances might justify a different outcome now.

On the merits, Magistrate Judge Urbanski explained:

"RLUIPA defines religious exercise as 'any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” 42 U.S.C. 2000cc-5(7)(A). Thus, 'the truth of a belief is not open to question, rather, the question is whether the objector’s beliefs are truly held.' Cutter v. Wilkinson, 125 S. Ct. 2113, 2124, n.13 (2005) (internal citation omitted). The question then becomes whether plaintiff’s beliefs are sincerely held. See Dehart v. Horn, 227 F.3d 47, 51 (3d Cir. 2000) (en banc) (stating that a court must determine as a threshold matter whether an inmate’s belief is 'sincerely held' and 'religious in nature'). The relevant case law in the free exercise area suggests that two threshold requirements must be met before particular beliefs are accorded first amendment protection. A court must decide whether the beliefs avowed are (1) sincerely held; and (2) religious in nature, in the claimant's scheme of things. See United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 185 (1965); Ephraim v. Angelone, 313 F. Supp. 2d 569, 578 (E.D. Va. 2003). The Supreme Court has emphasized that 'while the 'truth' of a belief is not open to question, there remains the significant question of whether it is 'truly held.'"

The defendant questioned the sincerity of the plaintiff's beliefs, with the idea that he had changed to Islam because the last religion he had claimed would not get him his preferred diet, and because he was not observing the common practices of Islam. Judge Urbanski concluded "CCS's method of determination here – forcing plaintiff to demonstrate that he has adhered to the key tenets of his faith for a moderate period of time – is reasonable." He also concluded that in the alternative, the defendant should be entitled to qualified immunity.

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