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RLUIPA Prison Case Had No Merit

The Third Circuit issued an opinion on February 9, 2012, deciding a prisoner RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) case that contained an issue of first impression. The importance of this case for future reference will likely be the holding that RLUIPA does not permit government employees to be sued as individuals, but only in their governmental capacity. (The act protects both religious land use, such as for churches in zoning issues, and religious expression in institutions such as prisons.)

This case, involving a requested accommodation of a prisoner's religious group, dragged on for over 11 years.  The facts are a little complicated, but can be summarized as follows. Plaintiff Shawn Sharp, an inmate in Philadelphia, is serving a life term of imprisonment for first degree murder. He is a Muslim, and while he was permitted to attend regular Muslim services, and to practice his religion privately, he was denied his requested group accommodation for his particular small religious sect (Habashi). He filed suit based on the First Amendment and RLUIPA. 

Years of motions practice followed, in which attorneys wrote complicated briefs back and forth. After this had, one hopes, simplified the issues, a Magistrate Judge heard the case in a bench trial. Sharp's First Amendment action was dismissed because, among other reasons, he had failed to comply with prison regulations in submitting his requests. He did not fill out the Religious Accommodation Request Form.  His RLUIPA action was also dismissed.

On appeal, the Third Circuit considered, as a matter of first impression, whether RLUIPA permits actions against government employees in their individual capacities, and concluded that it does not. Thus, Sharp was not permitted to sue prison officials as individuals under RLUIPA. The denial of Sharp's First Amendment action was also affirmed, on the basis that the prison officials have qualified immunity. Qualified immunity applies unless a reasonable official would understand that he is violating a constitutional right. Not permitting a single prisoner, or a very small group of prisoners, to require the state to provide separate religious services would not be obviously understood by a reasonable official to violate a constitutional right.  It is not an established prisoner's right to have optional religious services a la carte. The Third Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court in favor of the prison officials.

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