CHICAGO (CN) – An Illinois prison chaplain does not have immunity from constitutional claims that he refused vegan mails to an inmate who adheres to the Moorish Science Temple, the 7th Circuit ruled.
While incarcerated at Pinckneyville Correctional Center, Mondrea Vinning-El requested a vegan diet on religious grounds. Noting that the tenants of Moorish Science only require a non-pork diet that can include dairy products and many kinds of meat and fish, prison chaplain Rick Sutton denied the request.
Vinning-El sued Sutton and the warden under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and USC §1983, claiming that his religious beliefs require a vegan diet no matter what other members of his sect believe.
U.S. District Judge David Herndon granted summary judgment for the prison officials, saying statutory language precluded the claim because Vinning-El now resides at a different prison and is receiving a vegan diet. As such, damages would be the only potential relief, which the judge said is impermissible under RLUIPA.
Herndon allowed Vinning-El’s other claims to proceed, however, to determine whether denying the vegan meals “was the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.”
Though the 7th Circuit affirmed, it reached the decision on different grounds. Herndon should have applied Supreme Court precedent from Employment Division v. Smith, which “holds that the free-exercise clause does not require accommodation of religious practices, and that identical treatment of believers and non-believers satisfies the First Amendment,” according to the court.
A personal religious faith is entitled to as much protection as one espoused by a group, Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook explained for the three-judge panel.
“Hierarchical religions, such as the Roman Catholic Church, believe that only the group’s leaders can establish and articulate that only the group’s leaders can establish and articulate the group’s tenets on central issues of faith. But non-hierarchical religions, such as most Protestant and Islamic sects, believe that every worshipper has a direct connection to God,” Easterbrook wrote. “This doctrine of the ‘priesthood of believers’ was one of the major reasons for the Protestant schism from the Catholic Church. No state is entitled to insist that the Catholic Church is right and that adherents to every faith therefore must espouse all, and only those beliefs that have the support of a sect’s leadership. If chaplain Sutton refused to approve religious diets for inmates who differ on dietary questions from their church’s leaders, he violated clearly established rules of constitutional law.”
Herndon should have considered why Sutton denied Vinning-El’s request, the court ruled.
“If he turned Vinning-El down for the sole reason that Moorish Science does not make a vegan diet a tenet of religious faith, then he violated Vinning-El’s clearly established rights and is not entitled to immunity,” Easterbrook wrote. “But if Sutton thought Vinning-El insincere – thought, in other words, that he wanted a vegan diet for a non-religious reason – then Sutton is entitled to immunity, even if a judge or jury disagrees with the chaplain’s conclusion.”
The case was remanded to the district court for a ruling on Sutton’s motives.