Written by Don Byrd

When does a prison need to accommodate an inmate’s religious observance request? A federal law entitled the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) provides a framework for courts to apply in addressing that question. As the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals explained this week in Cavin v. Michigan Dept. of Corrections, RLUIPA is “a three-act play.”

In Act One, the inmate must demonstrate that he seeks to exercise religion out of a “sincerely held religious belief.” In Act Two, he must show that the government substantially burdened that religious exercise. In Act Three, the government must meet the daunting compelling-interest and least-restrictive-means test.

The plaintiff in Cavin is an adherent of the Wiccan faith. He filed suit because he claims prison officials denied him the ability to observe certain religious occasions communally in the chapel with the items he believes are necessary. After a trial, the District Court rejected his RLUIPA claim, finding that the restrictions placed on his religious observance did not constitute a substantial burden (that’s Act Two described above), and thus the court did not bother addressing the government’s compelling interest test (Act Three). But on appeal, the 6th Circuit held that Cavin’s religious free exercise was substantially burdened and sent the case back to the District Court to complete the Compelling Interest analysis.

Here is an excerpt from the 6th Circuit’s ruling, in which the panel explains why it doesn’t matter that Wiccans don’t all agree on the right way to observe their holidays:

[T]he Department’s policy burdens Cavin’s desired religious exercise. Why? Because it prevents the group worship Cavin seeks. . . . What’s more, the Department’s policy prevents Cavin from
accessing religious items found only in the chapel, barring him from properly celebrating Esbats in the way he believes he should.

…Barring group worship and preventing access to supplies burdens Cavin’s religious exercise.

This burden becomes no less substantial because some—maybe many—Wiccans celebrate Esbats alone. What matters is that Cavin sincerely believes he should celebrate Esbats
communally. The Supreme Court made this point in a case involving the right of a Muslim prisoner to grow a beard. The prisoner testified that “not all Muslims believe that men must grow beards.” After noting that the inmate’s belief wasn’t “idiosyncratic,” the court concluded that other believers’ practices didn’t matter. Why? Because “the protection of RLUIPA, no less than the guarantee of the Free Exercise Clause, is not limited to beliefs which are shared by all of the members of a religious sect.”

This is an important point! Protections under the law for religious freedom are not limited to those areas in which adherents agree. Religious liberty is an individual right. And while one’s religious free exercise must be predicated on sincere religious beliefs, they need not be recorded in a denomination’s by-laws or voted on by a high council, nor representative messengers for that matter.

And yet – that is not to say that Cavin will win in this case. Even though his religious free exercise is being substantially burdened according to the 6th Circuit, the state still has the opportunity under RLUIPA to establish that such a burden is necessary to further a compelling government interest.

For more on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, see BJC’s RLUIPA Resource page.