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SAUNDERS-EL v. TSOULOS

March 25, 1998

OMAR AMEER SAUNDERS-EL, Plaintiff,
v.
JAMES TSOULOS, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: LEINENWEBER

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

 Plaintiff Omar Ameer Saunders-El, an inmate currently incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center, filed this pro se suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of his right to participate in religious services. Saunders-El claims that Senior Chaplain James Tsoulos, Grievance Officer Debra Wilson, and Warden Keith Cooper denied him participation in Ramadan, a religious fast, while he was incarcerated at Joliet Correctional Center. Pursuant to this court's order of March 17, 1997, only Saunders-El's First Amendment free exercise claim for damages against Defendants in their individual capacities remains alive. *fn1" (Order, March 17, 1997, pp. 3-4.) Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment and 12(m) statement, and Saunders-El filed a response. For the reasons that follow, the court grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

 STANDARD OF REVIEW

 Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a summary judgment "shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file together, with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." All reasonable inferences regarding the facts must be drawn in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986).

 Where the party opposing a motion for summary judgment bears the burden of proof on an issue, he or she must affirmatively demonstrate by specific factual allegations that there is a genuine issue of material fact requiring trial. Courtney v. Biosound, 42 F.3d 414, 418 (7th Cir. 1994). The nonmoving party's affidavit or deposition can constitute such affirmative evidence. Id. If the nonmoving party fails to establish the existence of an element essential to his case on which he bears the burden of proof, summary judgment is proper. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986).

 BACKGROUND

 In January, 1996, before Ramadan was to begin, Saunders-El was required to identify his religious affiliation on a prison questionnaire, which included separate boxes for "Nation of Islam," "Muslim," and "Moorish Science Temple," among other designations. (Def. 12(m) Appendix F.) The form asks the inmate to indicate "one designation among the selections below." (Def. 12(m) Appendix F.) Saunders-El claims that he checked the box for the Moorish Science Temple of America ("MSTA") since he was required to choose only one affiliation, but that MSTA members also follow the religion of Islam. (Saunders-El Aff. P8.) *fn2" Saunders-El asserts that before Ramadan was to begin, he informed Chaplain Tsoulos that Islam is the MSTA's religion. (Saunders-El Aff. PP11, 16.)

 Chaplain Tsoulos initially told Saunders-El that he would include him on the list of inmates wishing to observe Ramadam. (Saunders-El Aff. P11.) However, Chaplain Tsoulos removed Saunders-El's name from the Ramadan list after consulting with Clifford Warner-Bey (Def. 12(m) P34), Grand Governor of Illinois' Institutional Missions for the Moorish Science Temple of America ("MSTA") (Def. 12(m) P10). Warner-Bey is charged with ensuring that the temples in Illinois function according to MSTA principles. (Def. 12(m) P11.) The Illinois Department of Corrections recognizes Warner-Bey as an authority on the MSTA (Def. 12(m) 15), and Warner-Bey maintains that Ramadan is not a tenet of the MSTA and that the MSTA and Islam are distinct religions (Warner-Bey Aff. PP5-6). Warner-Bey in fact claims that participating in Ramadan is a "violation" of MSTA practice. (Warner-Bey Aff. P6.) Furthermore, according to Chaplain Tsoulos, no MSTA member at Joliet had participated in Ramadan in the past. (Tsoulos Aff. P9.)

 One observing Ramadan fasts between sunrise and sunset for one month and eats only before dawn and after dusk. When Ramadan began, Saunders-El was not escorted to the dining hall before dawn and after dusk the way other inmates observing Ramadan were escorted. (Def. 12(m) P27, 36.) While he was allowed to purchase food from the commissary to have in his cell before sunrise and after sunset (Def. 12(m) P37), Saunders-El said that "you got to have money for that" (Saunders-El Dep., p. 42). On January 22, 1996, Saunders-El filed a grievance concerning his desire to participate in Ramadan. (Def. 12(m) P39.) A prison counselor informed Saunders-El that, according to the Chaplain, Moorish Americans do not observe Ramadan. (Def. 12(m) P40.) Grievance Officer Debra Wilson then denied Saunders-El's grievance, relying on Warner-Bey's statement that Moorish Americans do not participate in Ramadan, and Warden Keith Cooper concurred with Wilson's denial. (Def. 12(m) PP41-43.)

 Saunders-El claims that the MSTA's founder, Prophet Noble Drew Ali, teaches that Islam is the MSTA's religion (Saunders-El Aff. P3) and that MSTA members should follow the Holy Koran of Mecca (Saunders-El Aff. PP20-21). According to Saunders-El, Prophet Ali is the sole recognized authority on MSTA practices and Warner-Bey is only a member of the MSTA, like Saunders-El himself. (Saunders-El Aff. P3.) Saunders-El asserts that if there is a disagreement within the MSTA about what tenets to follow, the disagreement should be resolved by consulting the MSTA's Constitution. (Saunders-El Dep., p. 55.) Saunders-El does not, however, offer evidence that the MSTA Constitution commands that MSTA members observe Ramadan.

 ANALYSIS

 Saunders-El must satisfy three elements to succeed in his free exercise claim: (1) that he espouses a bona fide religion, (2) that his beliefs are sincerely held, and (3) that the activity he wishes to perform is essential to the practice of his religion. Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 32 L. Ed. 2d 15, 92 S. Ct. 1526 (1972). Earlier, this court found that Saunders-El stated a claim under the First Amendment. (Order, March 17, 1997, p. 4.) Defendants contend that Saunders-El fails to satisfy the third element of his claim because observing Ramadan is not essential to the practice of his religion. (Def. Mem., p. 7.)

 The motion at bar raises a theological disagreement about the essential tenets of the MSTA, Saunders-El's religious affiliation. The court notes at the outset the undesirability of judges donning religious robes over judicial ones. The courts are not equipped to resolve intra-faith differences among followers of a particular creed in relation to the Religion Clauses. Thomas v. Review Bd. of Indiana Employment Sec. Division, 450 U.S. 707, 715-16, 67 L. Ed. 2d 624, 101 S. Ct. 1425 (1981) ("It is not within the judicial function and judicial competence to inquire whether the petitioner or his fellow worker more correctly perceived the commands of their common faith. Courts are not arbiters of scriptural interpretation.")

 The parties do not dispute that Ramadan is an Islamic practice, but Defendants claim that Ramadan is not an MSTA practice. (Tsoulos Aff. P5, Warner-Bay Aff. P6.) Defendants also argue that the MSTA is a distinct religion from Islam. (Warner-Bey Aff. P5.) Conversely, Saunders-El asserts that Islam is the religion of the MSTA and that MSTA members therefore observe Ramadan. (Saunders-El Aff. PP4, 8.) Saunders-El maintains that the only feature that distinguishes the MSTA from Islam is that, in ...


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