Monday, November 20, 2017

Inmate religious freedom claim is revived, despite purportedly "bizarre" ritual

I always take notice when a pro se inmate prevails on appeal in the Second Circuit. Lawyers who work for the government are quite skilled. But these lawyers do not always win. A good case is a good case. I don't know what to make of this case, but it returns to the trial court because the district judge erroneously ruled against the plaintiff-inmate.

The case is Grief v. Quay, a summary order issued on November 13. Plaintiff brings this action under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal statute that provides that the government cannot substantially burden the exercise of sincerely-held religious beliefs without a compelling government interest. This law even protects inmates who want to practice their religious beliefs. The public may not like this, but inmates have rights, too, though those rights are limited since they are incarcerated and the jailers have leeway in regulating what goes on in the big house.

In this case, the trial court threw out the case from the outset, ruling that plaintiff's religious beliefs were too bizarre to qualify for a case like this. The trial court said that Grief's "belief that stuffed animals are necessary for his religious practices falls within the category of beliefs that are 'so bizarre, so clearly nonreligious in motivation, as not to be entitled to protection.'" The Second Circuit opinion does not tell us precisely what plaintiff's religious practices were, or how the stuffed animals factor into those religious practices. But the district court ruling gives us the detail:

“[h]is beliefs stem from his understanding of various religions like bhuddism [sic] and native american and also from science and science fiction as well as his life experiences.” According to Plaintiff, “[o]nce enlightenment is attained your spirit becomes part of the collective consious [sic],” and “[t]hese spirits can embody people, animals, and any objects to help guide you in meditation toward enlightenment,” but “[t]he spirit guide must be physically present to guide you during meditation.” Plaintiff’s spirit guides are animals; he “finds spiritual guidence [sic] from his stuffed animals during meditation,” but “cannot do any meaningful meditation” “[w]ithout being able to posess [sic] an animal or stuffed animal.”
The Second Circuit (Katzmann, Droney and Lohier) revives the case, as the district court's reasoning is improper. The Circuit reasons:

Whether a professed is entitled to free exercise protection under our precedents requires a determination by the "factfinder" regarding "whether the beliefs professed are, in the claimant's own scheme of things, religious." Accepting Grief's allegations as true and construing the complaint in the light most favorable to him, with the special solicitude that we afford to a pro se litigant, we conclude that the district court erred in deciding that Grief's belief regarding stuffed animals could not plausibly constitute a religious belief.

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