The Plaintiff, incarcerated at the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC) Varner Super Max unit, filed this pro se action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (docket entry #2) alleging that the Defendants violated the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000ccc-1. The Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, Brief in Support, and Statement of Undisputed Facts to which the Plaintiff filed Responses (docket entries #29, #30, #31, #33 and #34). The Defendants' motion (docket entry #29) is granted.
The Plaintiff alleges that the Defendants violated his rights under the First Amendment and RLUIPA by failing to serve him the same meal catered from Popeye's restaurant that other Muslim prisoners received to celebrate the end of the Ramadan fast, an event known as Eid-ul-Fitr ("Eid feast").*fn1 The material facts surrounding the incident giving rise to this lawsuit are undisputed. The Plaintiff received a regular meal tray following the Varner Super Max (VSM) Warden's decision not to serve the catered portion of the meal to Muslim inmates within the VSM due to security concerns.
ADC Defendants Chaplain Charles Freyder, VSM Warden Grant Harris, and Ray Hobbs, the VSM Deputy and Assistant Director, have moved for summary judgment based on the following: 1) the Eid feast is not a "required" holiday in the Muslim faith; 2) the Plaintiff does not have a sincerely held religious belief that he must participate in the Ramadan fast and Eid feast; 3) there are no special foods or quantities of food that a Muslim must consume during the Eid feast; 4) serving a catered meal to inmates within the VSM creates security and logistical problems; and 5) it would be gratuitous for the ADC to allow an inmate in an administratively segregated area to participate with other Muslims during the Eid feast.*fn2 In support of their claim, the Defendants submitted exhibits including declarations by Defendant Chaplain Freyder and ADC Muslim Chaplain Muhammad Ameen and a certified list of the Plaintiff's numerous violations of prison rules to show the insincerity of the Plaintiff's adherence to Islam. The Defendants also argue that the Court should grant summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity.
The Plaintiff's response to the Defendants' motion is that the Defendants burdened his religious exercise rights because he received the same meal as non-Muslim inmates; therefore, the Defendants did not allow him to enjoy a true "feast." The Plaintiff also contends that the Defendants did not allow him to celebrate the Eid feast in spiritual solidarity with other Muslims since he did not have the same catered meal of Popeye's chicken as other Muslim inmates in the general population. He argues that this denial was an attempt to create dissension among Muslim inmates, which further hindered his religious exercise.
Parties in this matter have consented to jurisdiction by magistrate judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed. R. Civ. P. 73.
Summary judgment is appropriate when the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, presents no genuine issue of material fact.
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 246 (1986). The party opposing summary judgment may not rest upon the allegations set forth in its pleadings, but must produce significant probative evidence demonstrating a genuine issue for trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248-49; see also Hartnagel v. Norman, 953 F.2d 394, 395-96 (8th Cir.1992). "[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48 (emphasis omitted). If the opposing party fails to carry that burden, or fails to establish the existence of an essential element of its case on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial, summary judgment should be granted. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.
The Plaintiff filed this action alleging violation of both the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment and RLUIPA. After the Defendants filed their Motion for Summary Judgment, the Plaintiff moved to withdraw his First Amendment claim (docket entry #35). A prison inmate may bring an action challenging an institution's impingement on the ability to participate in religious activities under both the First Amendment and RLUIPA; therefore, the court grants the Plaintiff's motion to withdraw his First Amendment claim and to proceed only on his claims under RLUIPA.
Although the Plaintiff filed this action alleging violation of his free exercise of religion rights under both the First Amendment and RLUIPA, the Defendants' Motion and Brief in Support assumes that this case turns on whether Defendants' actions meet the rational basis test applicable for First Amendment claims in the prison context.*fn3 While the rational basis test applies to First Amendment claims brought by prisoners, Congress has established a higher level of scrutiny for free exercise claims brought under RLUIPA:
No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution, as defined in section 2 of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (42 U.S.C. § 1997), even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person -(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a).
RLUIPA requires that a plaintiff first demonstrate that there is a substantial burden on his ability to exercise his religion. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-2(b). To constitute a "substantial burden," the plaintiff must show that the burdened activity is "religious exercise," and that the government policy or actions significantly inhibits religious expression that "manifests some central tenet" of his or her religious beliefs, "meaningfully curtail[s] a [the] ability to express adherence to his faith," or "den[ies] a [person] reasonable opportunities to engage in those activities that are fundamental to a [person's] ...