Tuesday, February 4, 2014
The Fourth Circuit ruled in Wall v. Wade that a Virginia prison's requirement that inmates show physical indicia of their faith before participating in Ramadan violated the Free Exercise Clause.
The case arose when Wall, an inmate at the Red Onion State Prison, or ROSP, in Pound, Virginia, sought a religious accommodation to participate in Ramadan--special meals served before sunrise and after sunset. But ROSP policy required prisoners to show "physical indicia" of their faith--such as a Quran, Kufi, prayer rug, or written religious materials obtains from the prison Chaplain's office--before receiving the accommodation. Wall had none of these, because his "physical indicia" were lost when he was transferred to ROSP from another facility. So officials denied his accommodation.
Wall nevertheless skipped breakfast and concealed a portion of his meal in his cell to save until after sunset. ROSP staff discovered the food and threatened to charge Wall with possessing contraband. As the court wrote, "Faced with choosing between starvation and sanctions, Wall ate during the day and violated his religious beliefs."
Wall filed formal complaints and later sued, arguing that ROSP policy as applied to him violated RLUIPA and the Free Exercise Clause. The district court dismissed the case, but the Fourth Circuit reversed.
The court held that the policy violated the four-part test in Turner v. Safley:
First, demanding specific physical items as proof of faith will rarely be an acceptable means of achieving the prison's stated interest in reducing costs. Strict application of such a rule fails even a rational connection requirement. . . .
[Second, i]t is clear that Wall was absolutely precluded from observing Ramadan because of the defendants' actions. . . .
[Third, w]e are not satisfied that the defendants have sufficiently explained how a less restrictive policy would have imposed a significant burden on prison resources. . . .
Finally, we are satisfied that there existed "easy [and] obvious alternatives" to the challenged regulation.
The court ruled that Wall's rights were "clearly established," and that ROSP officials therefore did not enjoy qualified immunity.
The court also rejected the claim that Wall's case was moot in light of the Prison's changed policy. Applying the "voluntary cessation" doctrine, the court wrote, "We have no difficulty concluding that the defendants failed to meet their "heavy burden" of establishing that it is not "absolutely clear" the 2010 Ramadan policy will not be reinstated."