What do a prisoner in administrative segregation, an MP3 player, an audio version of the Bible, and earbud headphones have to do with defending local governments in RLUIPA claims?  Read on.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit recently ruled that a prisoner’s RLUIPA claim had been rendered moot and could not proceed, as prison officials had granted the relief sought by the prisoner.  A Messianic Jewish prisoner, Joshua James Robertson, claimed that his religious exercise was substantially burdened because he could no longer hear the Bible read aloud to him while in long-term administrative segregation.  He requested that he be allowed to have a “my-iBible,” an MP3 player that is loaded with an audio recording of the Bible.  The District Court dismissed Mr. Robertson’s substantial burden claim, but the Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded that decision in 2016.  Following the Tenth Circuit’s 2016 ruling, prison officials permitted Mr. Robertson to possess the my-iBible along with earbud headphones.  Based on this action by prison officials, the District Court ruled that Mr. Robertson’s RLUIPA claim was now moot.  Mr. Robertson appealed the mootness finding and, while his appeal was pending, prison officials seized his headphones because he had been using them to listen to an AM/FM mini-radio.

Mr. Robertson asserted that his appeal had been “un-mooted,” since his headphones were taken from him and he was no longer able to listen to his my-iBible.  The Tenth Circuit disagreed and affirmed the District Court’s decision on mootness because Mr. Robertson had been afforded the exact relief he requested in his suit.  The Tenth Circuit, however, noted that “[i]f anything, the subsequent events might create a new claim (although we express no opinion on that matter), but they do not revive the instant lawsuit.”  This decision should be of particular interest to local governments defending against possible RLUIPA violations.  RLUIPA’s safe harbor provision may provide an escape valve to grant the religious land use applicant the requested relief to render moot claims of religious discrimination.

The Tenth Circuit also affirmed the District Court’s refusal to award Mr. Robertson secretarial costs billed to him by his mother in connection with the litigation.

Original photography by Keith Davenportsome rights reserved.

The decision in Robertson v. Biby (10th Cir. 2017) is available here.