The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) applies in two contexts: (1) where a religious institution or individual seeks zoning approval or receives a zoning decision, and (2) where inmate seeks certain accommodations to fulfill his or her religious beliefs. The following is a tale of the latter situation in which an inmate in California state prison used RLUIPA in an attempt to be allowed conjugal visits with his wife.
Madero Pouncil is a California inmate serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in Mule Creek State Prison. Pouncil is a Muslim who claims that he could not comply with his religious duties under Islam absent conjugal visits with his wife. Thus, in 2009, Pouncil requested conjugal visits with his wife. Prison officials, however, denied this request pursuant to a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) regulation prohibiting family visits for specific categories of inmates, including those sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, such as Pouncil. Down, but not out, Pouncil filed a grievance and then a “Second Level” appeal to challenge the prison officials’ denial of his request for conjugal visits, but these were also denied.
Later, Pouncil divorced his wife and remarried in 2007. In 2008, Pouncil requested conjugal visits with his second wife, but prison officials again denied his request pursuant to the same state regulation prohibiting family visits to inmates serving lifetime sentences without the possibility of parole. Pouncil filed administrative appeals of the 2008 denial and exhausted all administrative remedies, but was denied conjugal visits at each level of review.
Two questions immediately come to mind. First, how on earth was Pouncil able to find, court, and marry his second wife behind prison walls? For further reading on this subject, see What Draws People to Marry Prison Inmates, by clicking here. Second, and more pertinent, can an inmate really challenge a prison official’s denial of access to conjugal visits as a form of religious exercise under RLUIPA?
In 2009, Pouncil brought a lawsuit pro se against the Director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Facility Captain, and the Warden of the prison. Pouncil claimed that the refusal to permit him conjugal visits with his wife violated the United States Constitution and RLUIPA on the ground that “he is a Muslim, that marriage is one of the most important institutions in Islam and is incumbent on every Muslim, and that the main duties of a Muslim to his or her spouse are to consummate their marriage to solidify the validity of the marriage and to have sexual relations as a form of worship.” Pouncil’s Complaint alleges that he brought the lawsuit against the CDCR “for implementing a rule to the California Code of Regulation (3177(b)(2))” for violating his right to the free exercise of religion. The Complaint adds:
“. . . the California Code of Regulation . . . violates Petitioner[’s] Constitutional right to practice his religion and be married as a Muslim under the RLUIPA act. . . . Petitioner all so [sic] claims a violation of his 14th. and 8th. Amendment rights. . . . this rule dose [sic] not provide intimate time (family visiting for Muslim Inmates serving a life without parole term, wherefore making it impossible for Petitioner to consummate his marriage/have sexual relations with his wife as commanded by (ALLAH) and affirmed in the teaching of prophet Muhammad. [A]nd by denying Petitioner the right to perform his religious duties to his wife or potential wife is to deny him his right to be married as a Muslim.”
Pouncil’s Complaint does not expressly refer to his applications for conjugal visits in 2002 or 2008, or the denial of same, though it does describe the administrative process taken after each conjugal visit denial. Pouncil sought as relief: “Reinstate Family Visits for Lifers, and Life without the possibility of parole Inmate so I can fulfill my duties religiously to my wife, and guide my children in my family with direct understanding of my faith.”
The defendants filed a motion to dismiss Pouncil’s Complaint, arguing that his claims were time-barred by the statute of limitations. Specifically, the defendants alleged that Pouncil’s claims were facial challenges testing the legality of California’s regulation, in contrast to challenging the application of that regulation to Pouncil based on the 2008 conjugal visit denial with his second wife. The magistrate judge agreed, concluding that Pouncil’s claims amounted to challenges of the prison regulation itself without regard to whom he was married at the time. The magistrate judge therefore recommended that Pouncil’s claims be dismissed as time-barred. The district judge, however, declined to adopt the magistrate judge’s recommended findings. Instead, the district judge found that Pouncil’s Complaint alleged an injury from the 2008 denial of the requested conjugal visit, not the 2002 denial, and that the 2008 denial was an individual, actionable injury. Accordingly, the Court found Pouncil’s claims were not time-barred and denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss.
Defendant James Tilton, Director of the California Department of Corrections appealed the District Court’s decision to the Ninth Circuit. Tilton argued that as a facial challenge to the regulation, Pouncil’s claims, which had 2 year (§ 1983 claims) and 4 year (RLUIPA claims) statute of limitations periods, respectively, were filed too late. Tilton argued that: “[a]ll of the allegations in the Complaint regarding Pouncil’s inability to have sex with his second wife are merely the delayed, but inevitable, consequence of the original decision that he is subject to regulations preventing LWOP inmates from participating in conjugal visits.”
The Ninth Circuit has found that a statute of limitations commences on the date on which the plaintiff’s claim “accrues.” Lukovsky v. City and County of San Francisco, 535 F.3d 1044, 1048 (9th Cir. 2008). Thus, according to Tilton, Pouncil’s claims accrued in 2002 when he first filed a grievance regarding the denial of his 2002 request for a conjugal visit with his first wife, and the statute of limitations for his claims had run by the time he brought the lawsuit in 2009. Tilton further noted that Pouncil’s Complaint never even mentioned the 2008 conjugal visit denial and must therefore be construed as a facial challenge to the regulation.
The Ninth Circuit disagreed and affirmed the decision of the District Court. The Ninth Circuit construed Pouncil’s pro se complaint liberally, as it must, finding that Pouncil’s claims did not challenge the legality of the regulation, but rather challenged the 2008 denial of conjugal visits with his second wife. This, the Court found, could be seen from the following language in his complaint: “Reinstate Family Visits for Lifers, and Life without the possibility of parole Inmate [sic] so I can fulfill my duties religiously to my wife, and guide my children in my family with direct understanding of my faith.” (emphasis added). Pouncil’s failure to identify the 2008 denial was not dispositive of the nature of his claims. Although the Court did not address the merits of the claim, even if Pouncil is able to establish that the denial of conjugal visits imposes a substantial burden under RLUIPA on his religious exercise as a Muslim, the defendants may be able to show a compelling governmental interest in so doing if their actions were taken to protect the health and safety of the prison, its population, and its employees.
The Ninth Circuit’s decision is available at: http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2012/11/21/10-16881.pdf .
What is one supposed to make of this case, especially as it relates to land use and zoning applications and litigation? RLUIPA law, whether in the context of institutionalized persons or land use and zoning, is still evolving – the statute has been in existence for just over 12 years. While Mr. Pouncil’s attempt to use RLUIPA as a means to have sex with his wife as a form of religious worship may sound ridiculous to some, it is indicative of the statute’s far-reaching scope. Virtually any claimed religious belief or practice, so long as it is legitimate and sincerely-held, may fall within the purview of RLUIPA. Therefore, when faced with an applicant seeking zoning approval to accommodate a religious belief or practice, a municipality may wish to review the application with the understanding that it is very possible, if not probable, that the applicant may be protected under RLUIPA.
The other takeaway? Apparently, it is possible to find love from behind prison walls even after one is incarcerated.