Accommodation of Prisoners With Idiosyncratic Religious Beliefs

Under O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342 (1987), prisons are constitutionally limited in the restrictions they place on inmates’ religious practices to those restrictions that reasonably related to legitimate penological objectives.  The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act offers additional, statutory protections.  But talk of a religious practice normally conjures up the image of an organized religious group acting pursuant to shared beliefs.  What are we to make of an inmate who seeks an accommodation based on an indiosyncratic “religious” belief that is not actually espoused by his or her sect?  Must an inmate’s belief be officially supported by an organized religious group in order to receive legal protection?

Yes and no, the Seventh Circuit answered last week in Vinning-El v. Evans (No. 10-1681)


Here’s the factual background:

While he was confined at Pinckneyville Correctional Center, Mondrea Vinning-El asked for a vegan diet. He told the prison’s chaplain, Rick Sutton, that he adheres to the Moorish Science Temple of America. Sutton turned Vinning-El down, observing that the tenets of Moorish Science require a non-pork diet, which can include dairy products and many kinds of meat and fish. Vinning-El, who contends that his religious beliefs require a vegan diet no matter what other members of his sect believe, then filed this suit against Sutton [and warden John Evans] . . . . (1-2)

Although Vinning-El initially made claims based on both the Free Exercise Clause and RLUIPA, the latter statutory claim was eliminated by the fact that Vinning-El was later moved to another prison and given a vegan diet there; money damages (the sole remedy still on the table) are not available for the RLUIPA claim.

The defendants partially lost a summary judgment motion in district court and took an interlocutory appeal.

In deciding the appeal, the Seventh Circuit indicated that, at least in principle, idiosyncratic religious beliefs are fully protected by O’Lone and the Free Exercise Clause:

A personal religious faith is entitled to as much protection as one espoused by an organized group. Frazee v. Illinois Department of Employment Security, 489 U.S. 829, 834 (1989); see also Hernandez v. CIR, 490 U.S. 680, 699 (1989). Hierarchical religions, such as the Roman Catholic Church, believe that only the group’s leaders can establish and articulate the group’s tenets on central issues of faith. But non-hierarchical religions, such as most Protestant and Islamic sects, believe that every worshipper has a direct connection to God. This doctrine of the “priesthood of believers” was one of the major reasons for the Protestant schism from the Catholic Church. No state is entitled to insist that the Catholic Church is right and that adherents to every faith therefore must espouse all, and only, those beliefs that have the support of a sect’s leadership. If chaplain Sutton refused to approve religious diets for inmates who differ on dietary questions from their church’s leaders, he violated clearly established rules of constitutional law . . . . (4-5)

This seems a strong endorsement of protection for idiosyncratic beliefs, but then the court identified a subtle way that an inmate’s orthodoxy might actually count in the constitutional analysis:

Sincere religious beliefs must be accommodated (at least when failure to accommodate a particular belief would amount to discrimination against one sect, or a personal faith), but non-religious beliefs need not be. See, e.g., Thomas v. Review Board, 450 U.S. 707, 713 (1981); United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 185 (1965); Kaufman v. McCaughtry, 419 F.3d 678, 681 (7th Cir. 2005); Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church v. New York City, 293 F.3d 570, 574 (2d Cir. 2002). A prison is entitled to ensure that a given claim reflects a sincere religious belief, rather than a preference for the way a given diet tastes, a belief that the preferred diet is less painful for animals, or a prisoner’s desire to make a pest of himself and cause trouble for his captors. And although sincerity rather than orthodoxy is the touchstone, a prison still is entitled to give some consideration to an organization’s tenets. For the more a given person’s professed beliefs differ from the orthodox beliefs of his faith, the less likely they are to be sincerely held. Very few people who identify themselves as Baptists sincerely believe that a halal or vegan diet is obligatory on religious grounds. Such a belief isn’t impossible, but it is sufficiently rare that a prison’s chaplain could be skeptical and conduct an inquiry to determine whether the claim was nonetheless sincere.  (5-6)

Is it really true that “the more a given person’s professed beliefs differ from the orthodox beliefs of his faith, the less likely they are to be sincerely held”?  Could be, I suppose, but I’m not sure how one would prove it.

In any event, the court decided that the key to Chaplain Sutton’s qualified immunity defense was whether he had refused to accommodate Vinning-El’s dietary request purely because of the inmate’s lack of orthodoxy, or because he saw in the lack of orthodoxy evidence of insincerity.  This was not how the district judge had framed the issue, so the Seventh Circuit remanded the case for a hearing on Sutton’s true motivations.