Friday, November 13, 2015

Inmate wins religious freedom appeal

This prisoners' rights case alleges that the jail denied plaintiff kosher food and the religious head covering of his choice. Much to the dismay of the tough-on-crime crowd, I'm sure, he wins the appeal. And he does it pro se, without a lawyer.

The case is Barnes v. Furman, a summary order decided on October 22. Plaintiff says in 2004 he was denied kosher meals for a three to four month period because he identified as a Hebrew Israelite and not Jewish. He also says that in 2007, he was denied religious head covering because he then identified as Jewish and not Rastafarian.

Once again, an appeal turns on the issue of qualified immunity, which is legal-speak for the noption that public officials cannot be sued over constitutional violations that were not clearly-established at the time of the violation. If the case law was fuzzy at the time, the plaintiff loses, even if 20-20 hindsight says his rights were actually violated.

Plaintiff loses the kosher meals claim. Prisoners do have a right to a diet consistent with their religious beliefs. But in this case, it was objectively reasonable for defendants to think that their denial of kosher meals to an inmate who identified as a Hebrew Israelite did not violate his rights. Not only did prison officials rely on prison policy in this regard, but they relied on plaintiff's registered religious designation in making its kosher meal determination.

But plaintiff wins the religious head covering part of the appeal. The jail officials do not deny that plaintiff's rights were violated in the abstract. But they argue, under qualified immunity principles, that there was no clearly-established law allowing inmates to wear "head coverings of their choice." While the Court of Appeals has never held that prison officials must provide inmates with head coverings of their choice, it is clear that the jails cannot violate inmate rights without asserting a legitimate reason for doing so. The jail provides no good reason why they followed a policy that limited Jewish inmates' head coverings to yarmulkes only. Nor do they explain why they relied solely on the opinion of the New York State Board of Rabbis where the sincerity of plaintiff's religious belief is not in question.

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