This is a guest post contributed by Joseph N. Schneiderman.*

On November 23, in Trapp v. Roden, 473 Mass. 210 (2015), the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that the Massachusetts Department of Correction’s (DOC) closure of a sweat lodge at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center (SBCC) violated RLUIPA. Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly wrote for a unanimous Court and rejected DOC’s assertions that: (1) institutional health concerns justified the closure under RLUIPA, or that (2) Trapp, as an inmate at Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Norfolk (MCI-Norfolk), lacked standing to challenge the closure.

As noted in the preview post about this case, Randall Trapp, a prison inmate at MCI-Norfolk, originally sued DOC (with other inmates) in 1995, asserting violations of his rights to religious exercise and freedom. The original case settled in 2003 and guaranteed Trapp and the original plaintiffs the right to use sweat lodges once a month, within a secure perimeter. Sweat lodges contain sixteen saplings in a circle to form a dome covered by blankets. A pit is dug in the center of the circle to contain heated rocks and water is poured over the rocks to create steam. DOC originally built a sweat lodge at SBCC in 2004, but closed it within six months, citing complaints of respiratory distress over smoke entering the closed ventilation system there.

In 2010, Trapp had returned to court to enforce the settlement and joined a fellow MCI-Norfolk inmate Ferreira, who was later transferred to SBCC during the pendency of the case. A bench trial followed, and the trial judge entered a declaration that the closure of the sweat lodge at SBCC violated RLUIPA, the settlement, and the Massachusetts Constitution. The trial judge found, as a matter of fact, that DOC’s closure stemmed from “unconvincing references to health concerns” based on conjectural hearsay “without any medical foundation.” Moreover, there was no reason to conclude that the sole prospect of ameliorating any health problems was a complete closure of the lodge. DOC appealed, asserting that these findings were clearly erroneous and did not support the closure.

Initially, the Court rejected DOC’s claim that the sweat lodge closure at SBCC did not substantially burden Ferreira’s rights under RLUIPA. The Court recalled that RLUIPA “protects any exercise of religion…[so] long as the exercise is based on a sincerely held religious belief.” 473 Mass. at 214 (quoting Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853, 862 (2015)).  Since access to the sweat lodge was a religious exercise, Ferreira’s access to alternate religious exercises was irrelevant to this analysis. Id. at 214-215.

Turning to the disputed factual findings, the Court accepted that the health of inmates could serve as a compelling government interest under RLUIPA. However, DOC’s evidence to support that position was hollow. One DOC employee testified to hearsay statements of how inmates and staff at SBCC suffered respiratory distress-but DOC presented no direct testimony on that point. Another only testified that SBCC had a closed ventilation system and also had no direct information of distress, nor did DOC introduce his report on the ventilation system. 473 Mass. at 216-217.  Thus, DOC’s alleged compelling interest in health was not “actual rather than speculative.” Id. at 217. The trial court’s factual findings were thus supported by the record. Id. at 217-218.

Assuming arguendo that DOC established a compelling interest, the Court rejected that DOC had pursued or utilized the least restrictive means to achieve its interest. More specifically, DOC’s three attempted tests in the yard at SBCC that did not elucidate how (or even whether) smoke had entered SBCC—and thus did not suffice. Moreover, DOC could have (but failed to) attempt to filter air in the facility or disperse it inside. All of this meant that DOC’s closure of the sweat lodge violated RLUIPA. 473 Mass. at 217-219. The Court further rejected DOC’s claim that it did not breach the settlement-or that Trapp lacked standing to seek enforcement of the settlement because he was not currently an inmate at SBCC. Id. at 219-221.

A key theme emerges from the Court’s decision; whatever interest prison administrators assert must have a solid evidentiary foundation in the record. Although inmate health is certainly a compelling interest, conclusory, vague, or hearsay statements do not suffice to meet this burden. Nor do similar vague statements about how DOC explored alternatives. Had DOC presented direct inmate, officer or staff testimony of smoke distress arising from sweat lodges, the result may have been different.

This decision also stands in notable contrast to the general constitutional analysis that permits prison administrators to show a rational basis for their asserted regulations. Compare Turner v. Safely, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). Here, once an inmate establishes that his genuine religious practice is burdened, DOC must show that it has a compelling interest that is advanced in the lease restrictive means possible to achieve that interest. And this will include exploration of alternatives-prison administrators do not receive credence at face value.  This element of the SJC’s decision may have resonance and ramification for years to come-and may, by February, be the subject of a petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.

On December 7, Joseph N. Schneiderman argued a criminal appeal before the Supreme Judicial Court.  Joe continues to “ride circuit” building his appellate practice in Massachusetts and Connecticut and gratefully thanks the authors for the opportunity to blog (again!) about this case.

*This is a guest commentary from Joseph N. Schneiderman who is not affiliated with Robinson+Cole, and is not responsible for the content of this post.