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Civil Rights – Burden on Inmate’s Religious Rights Not Justified

The government was not entitled to summary judgment against an inmate who claimed that his religious freedom was violated, the appellate court held.

Appellant Aaron Carter, a Virginia prisoner, follows dietary restrictions in accordance with his religion (Nation of Islam). He participated in a program whereby the prison would provide an appropriate religious diet in exchange for prisoners’ agreement to abide by certain requirements, including not eating unauthorized food from the main food line. On Thanksgiving 2015, prison officials observed Carter accepting a main-line lunch tray and therefore suspended him from the religious-diet program for one year. Carter sued, asserting violations of his First Amendment right to the free exercise of his religion as well as his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The district court granted summary judgment against him.

On appeal, the circuit court held that Carter has standing. Carter’s complaint challenged not only his suspension from the religious-diet program, but also the content of the program’s menu. Therefore, if he prevails, he could once again receive meals that complied with his religious dietary restrictions. His claims are not mooted either by expiration of the year-long suspension or by his relocation to a different prison. Expiration allows Carter only to reapply for the program, with no guarantee that his application will be granted. If he prevails, he could be entitled to resume participating in the program at his new prison. Accordingly, he has alleged an injury traceable to and redressable by the government.

On the merits, Carter has created a genuine issue of material dispute regarding violations of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause: His verified complaint plainly alleges that the new menu does not comply with the Nation of Islam dietary restrictions because, among other problems, it includes fried foods. Although Defendants never offered any specific challenge in the district court to this allegation, on appeal they argue for the first time that Carter has not created a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether his beliefs prohibiting eating fried foods. They also posit that he could still be nutritionally sustained by the remaining non-prohibited foods. But these arguments were not before the district court; thus, Carter had no notice that he needed to develop evidence on these issues. Thus, Defendants’ arguments on appeal do not support affirming summary judgment.

Even when a prison policy or practice substantially burdens a prison’s religious exercise, it will not violate the First Amendment if the government can demonstrate that it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. To the extent that the state contends that a particular objective justified the punitive policy or practice, the justification must be presented to the district court. Defendants in this case did not do so. Since they have not offered any interest that they claim justified the burden on Carter’s religious freedom, they are not entitled to summary judgment.

Reversed and remanded.

Carter v. Fleming, Case No. 17-6461, Jan. 8, 2018, 4th Cir. (Traxler). David Michael Shapiro for Appellant; Matthew Robert McGuire for Appellee. Lawyers Weekly No. 001-006-18, 14 pp.

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