By Kristina Doan Gruenberg of Burke, Williams, Sorensen LLP
Stephen Cavanaugh, an inmate incarcerated by the Nebraska Department of Corrections, filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging that prison staff repeatedly discriminated against him by not allowing him to meet for worship services and classes, or to wear religious clothing and pendants. Cavanaugh says that he is a “Pastafarian.” According to the church’s website, Pastafarians believe that the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world and pirates were its initial followers. They are also known to wear cooking colanders on their heads.
Prison officials denied Cavanaugh’s requests, finding that Pastafarians were a parody. However, Cavanaugh asserts that the religion is real and that he was a Pastafarian even before he came to prison, with tattoos as proof. Cavanaugh alleges that the only reasons his religious requests were denied was because they do not conform to the ‘traditional’ Abrahamic belief structure.
Cavanaugh isn’t the first Pastafarian to challenge the government. In Kansas, a Pastafarian protested the Kansas Board of Education’s decision to allow intelligent design to be taught in public schools and demanded that Flying Spaghetti Monsterism be taught in schools. In Oklahoma, a woman was allowed to wear a colander on her head in her driver’s license pictures because she said it was part of her religious headgear.
Although the public may laugh off Cavanaugh’s complaint as another frivolous inmate lawsuit, his complaint demonstrates the challenges that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) have caused for prisons.
RLUIPA states that no government shall substantially burden an inmate’s religious exercise unless the government shows that the burden is the least restrictive means toward a compelling government interest.
There has been a trend of the courts to bypass an analysis of whether an inmate’s claimed religion is actually a legitimate religion and whether their claimed belief is actually a tenet of that faith. Typically all an inmate has to do, for many courts, is say is that he “sincerely” has a religious belief, and then the burden shifts to the prison to show that 1) they have a compelling government interest in regulating the inmate’s religious beliefs; and 2) that it is the least restrictive way to do so. The courts have often rejected budget concerns as a compelling government interest, and only allow prisons to regulate religious requests if there are security concerns (ignoring the fact that budget concerns and safety are often intertwined).
For example, in one case, an inmate claimed that he was a Theravada Buddhist and needed a vegan diet with vegan food prepared in a vegan kitchen. Even though the inmate had no authority showing that Theravada Buddhism requires a vegan diet, the court bypassed this issue and went directly to whether the prison lawfully rejected the inmate’s requests for these meals. Further, although the prison presented undisputed evidence that it would have to go to Whole Foods to specially fulfill the inmate’s request and it would cost over 30 times as much as a regular inmate meal (including travel of a prison employee), the court denied the prison’s motion for summary judgment.
In sum, the problem with the current state of RLUIPA is that the courts’ understandable reluctance to examine whether a religion or religious belief is legitimate (which would create other First Amendment issues) has opened the floodgates to costly inmate requests. This has put prisons in the impossible situation of trying to accommodate various religious requests or fear being sued. For example, in Nebraska, where Cavanaugh sued based on Pastafarianism, the Department of Corrections already recognizes 20 different religions, including the House of Yahweh, Rastafarianism, and Satanism. California similarly recognizes dozens of religions.
Currently, the Supreme Court is evaluating the application of RLUIPA in the Holt v. Hobbs case. In that case, the issue is whether the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy violates RLUIPA. With inmate RLUIPA cases getting more attention, it might be a good time for the courts and Congress (who initially wrote and passed RLUIPA with overwhelming bipartisan support) to reassess the state of the law. They need to realize that requests like Cavanaugh’s are not uncommon and are becoming the norm in many prisons. As we have mentioned in previous newsletters, in various lawsuits there have been Native American inmates claiming that they cannot have food touched by menstruating women, House of Yahweh inmates claiming that their Kosher meals must include produce that has been picked from a tree of at least three years of age, and Odinist inmates requesting to drink mead. These examples demonstrate the need for reform.
If courts are not going to scrutinize a religion to determine if it is genuine and what its tenets are, and only consider whether the inmate sincerely believes the request, then prison officials should be given more deference as to whether accommodating each request poses an undue administrative or fiscal burden on the institution.
*This article is reprinted with the permission of Kristina Doan Gruenberg