It’s not often that we report on an RLUIPA prisoner case, but the case Thomas v. Corbett, No. 458 M.D. 2013 (Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court April 29, 2014), is remarkable enough in its claims to warrant review. Thomas Corbett, a 55year-old polygamist Muslim convicted of murder, is suing certain Pennsylvania officials under RLUIPA and the U.S. Constitution over the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) policy prohibiting conjugal visits. Thomas claims that his religion requires him to marry, to have multiple wives, and that the denial of conjugal visits “has a detrimental effect on the status of his marriages, because his wives are threatening to divorce him under Islamic religious rules if they are unable to have intercourse with him.”
While this may seem like your run-of-the mill RLUIPA prisoner claim, some of Thomas’ other claims stand out. Thomas asserts that the DOC’s prohibition of conjugal visits is discriminatory and violates equal protection because while “the general homosexual prison population is able to engage in sexual conduct with one another . . . heterosexual males may not have sex.” Thomas also claims that the no-conjugal visit policy violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because “the presence of female correctional officers causes him emotional distress.”
The court denied the DOC’s motion to dismiss Thomas’ RLUIPA claim at this stage of the proceedings because in considering dismissal, the court can only look to the pleadings as set forth in the complaint, and dismissing the RLUIPA claim would deny Thomas an opportunity to carry his burden of persuasion on the issue. Even though the DOC claimed that the conjugal visit prohibition serves a compelling governmental interest, it failed to argue that its policy was the “least restrictive means” possible of furthering that alleged interest, as required by RLUIPA. The court’s analysis of the burden of persuasion and sincerity of religious beliefs under RLUIPA may be useful to municipalities in the land use context when considering the threat of RLUIPA litigation.
The court dismissed Thomas’ equal protection and cruel and unusual punishment claims because they were insufficiently pled. To learn more about RLUIPA/conjugal visit cases, read our post about the Ninth Circuit’s 2013 decision in Pouncil v. Tilton, No. 10-16881(9th Cir. 2012).
The court’s decision in Thomas v. Corbett, No. 458 M.D. 2013 (Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court April 29, 2014) can be accessed here.