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JONES v. ROTH

December 18, 1996

FREEMAN JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
THOMAS P. ROTH, GILBERTO ROMERO, SALVADOR A. GODINEZ, JAMES M. SCHOMIG, and MICHAEL O'LEARY, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: BUCKLO

 The plaintiff, Freeman Jones, brought suit against the defendants alleging that they violated his rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The defendants, all of whom are prison officials at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois ("Stateville"), have moved for summary judgment on Mr. Jones' remaining claim for injunctive relief to expunge his record of a disciplinary citation. For the following reasons, the motion is granted.

 Background

 The following facts are undisputed. In March, 1991, Mr. Jones was incarcerated at Stateville in the F-house cell block. As a Muslim, Mr. Jones observes the Islamic month of Ramadan. During Ramadan in 1991, Mr. Jones, along with the other Muslim inmates at Stateville, was given a morning meal and the opportunity for group worship and prayer in the dining hall. The dining hall, however, has no bathrooms, and the tables in the dining hall are bolted to the floor and cannot be moved or rearranged.

 In the early morning of March 22, 1991, Mr. Jones was returning to F-house from the dining hall where he had a pre-sunrise meal and the opportunity for group prayer. Upon his return to F-house, Mr. Jones and several other prisoners went to the flag area in that cell block to conduct their morning prayers for Ramadan. On that same day, Mr. Jones was issued a citation related to his conduct in the flag area. Based on this citation, the Adjustment Committee of the prison found Mr. Jones guilty of disobeying a direct order of a prison officer. As a punishment for this violation, Mr. Jones was denied access to the prison commissary for three months.

 Based on these events, Mr. Jones sued several prison officials, including Thomas P. Roth, who was the warden at the time, for damages and injunctive relief. Through a series of earlier orders, I granted the defendants qualified immunity on the damages issue, and I dismissed the other plaintiffs who had joined in this case with Mr. Jones because their remaining claims were moot in light of the changes in procedures at Stateville. Mr. Jones' claim for injunctive relief, however, is still before the Court because he seeks to have his record expunged of the citation issued to him on March 22, 1991. The issue presently before the Court on the defendants' motion for summary judgment is whether or not the issuance of this citation violated Mr. Jones' religious freedoms under RFRA.

 Legal Standard of Review

 A court may award summary judgment to the moving party only when there is no genuine issue of material fact, and that party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). A genuine issue of material fact exists when a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-movant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986). In considering the motion, all reasonable inferences must be drawn in favor of the non-moving party. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142, 90 S. Ct. 1598 (1970).

 Applicability and Requirements of RFRA

 As a preliminary matter, I first must determine whether RFRA applies to this dispute at all. The defendants argue that Mr. Jones was issued the citation for disobeying a direct order to return to his cell after the prayer session. They claim that the citation was not issued in connection with any religious practice or conduct in which Mr. Jones engaged, and therefore RFRA is not implicated. Mr. Jones contends, however, that because the dining hall was not a proper space for group prayer, and the defendants refused to accommodate him with a different location, he was forced to pray in the flag area of F-house which was a proper space. Hence, he argues that he was given the citation for his act of praying in the flag area. Because I must draw all reasonable inference in favor of the non-moving party, I will infer that at least part of the motivation behind the citation issued to Mr. Jones was his act of praying in the flag area. Therefore, RFRA applies.

 RFRA requires that federal courts apply a new standard of review when assessing the legality of actions taken by the government which burden religious activity and conduct. RFRA provides that "government may substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person -- (1) is in furtherance of a compelling government interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(b) (1994). Under RFRA, a plaintiff must show that the government has created a substantial burden on the plaintiff's exercise of religion. Mack v. O'Leary, 80 F.3d 1175, 1180 (7th Cir. 1996). Once a substantial burden has been shown, the burden of proof shifts to the government to demonstrate that it has a compelling interest in imposing the burden and that the interest could not be protected in some less restrictive manner. Id. If the government carries its burden, RFRA has not been violated.

 Substantial Burden on Jones' Religion

 The Seventh Circuit recently undertook an in-depth examination of the meaning of "substantial burden" under RFRA. It concluded that a substantial burden is "one that forces adherents of a religion to refrain from religiously motivated conduct, inhibits or constrains conduct or expression that manifests a central tenet of a person's religious beliefs, or compels conduct or expression that is contrary to those beliefs." Mack, 80 F.3d at 1179. The Seventh Circuit was careful to note that its definition of "substantial burden" was a broad one which encompassed more than those religious practices which are mandatory but also those that "are important to their practitioners, who would consider the denial of them to be a grave curtailment of their religious liberty." Id. Whether a religious practice is mandatory or not "adds weight to, or subtracts weight from, the substantiality of the burden. But it does not conclude the issue." Id. (citations omitted).

 In the present case, the defendants have presented an affidavit from the chaplain at Stateville who asserts that many of the religious practices that Mr. Jones wished to perform for Ramadan, such as group prayer and wudu,1 are not mandatory. Therefore, they argue that none of the restrictions at Stateville imposed on those practices were a substantial burden. In contrast, Mr. Jones swears that these practices are central tenets of his religious beliefs and that the ...


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