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Nelson v. Miller

March 31, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Proud, Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Brian Nelson, is an inmate in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections, incarcerated at Tamms Correctional Center. His amended complaint alleges that defendant Carl Miller, the chaplain at Tamms, refused to allow him to receive a diet that comported with the requirements of his religion, in violation of the "free exercise" and "establishment"clauses of the First Amendment, the "equal protection" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1), and the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (775 ILCS 35/1, et seq.). (Doc. 33; see also Doc. 41). A bench trial was conducted on January 7, 2008, and the parties were permitted to file written briefs. (Doc. 71 (hereinafter "Tr."); Docs. 74 and 75).

An understanding of the procedural history of this action is helpful to the analysis of the issues. The original complaint, filed in Illinois State court in February 2003, described plaintiff as a Roman Catholic who also follows the Rule of St. Benedict, which forbids eating "the flesh meat of any four[-]legged animal at any time." (Doc. 2, pp. 4-5 and 14). Plaintiff's amended complaint was filed July 17, 2006, and revolves around the defendant's refusal to authorize a diet that complied with the requirements of plaintiff's declared Catholic faith. (Doc. 33). The amended complaint outlines an evolution of faith, premised upon the practice of his childhood of not eating meat on Fridays and during Lent, adding adherence to the Rule of St. Benedict regarding abstaining from eating the flesh of four-legged animals, and ending with a stricter construction of St. Benedict's Rule that bars the consumption of all meat at all times. (Doc. 33, pp. 3-4).

The amended complaint does not pin any particular claim to any particular date or period within the evolution of plaintiff's beliefs. However, on motion of the defendant, plaintiff's First Amendment "free exercise" claim based on his belief that he must abstain from eating all meat was dismissed because plaintiff had failed to exhaust administrative remedies, as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). (Doc. 56). Plaintiff's "establishment clause" and "equal protection" claims regarding abstention from eating the meat of four-legged animals and abstention from eating all meat were permitted to proceed, as those claims did not hinge on the specifics of the diet. (Doc. 56, pp. 7-12). In essence, the Court concluded that plaintiff's administrative grievances could not be construed to cover the infringement of religious beliefs plaintiff did not hold at the time the grievances were lodged. The chronology of plaintiff's evolution of faith and the varying dietary strictures are similarly relevant to analyzing the remaining claims.

In accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a)(1), the findings of fact are set forth below, followed by analysis and conclusions of law.

Findings of Fact

Tamms' Institutional Directive 04-25-101, § II(I)(1) provides: "Committed persons shall be permitted to abstain from any foods the consumption of which violates their required religious tenets." (Plaintiff's Exhibit 25). Requests for a religious diet must be in writing, giving specific details as to the applicable religious tenets involved, and confirmation from a faith representative regarding the dietary requirements is required. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 25, Tamm's Institutional Directive 04-25-101, § II(I)(3)). "Should further review be needed, the facility chaplain and the religious faith representative may interview the committed person."

(Plaintiff's Exhibit 25, Tamms' Institutional Directive 04-25-101, § II(I)(3)).

Upon incarceration in the Illinois Department of Corrections in 1983, plaintiff Brian Nelson formally designated himself a Catholic. (Tr. 13). In the late 1990's, plaintiff took a greater interest in his faith. (Tr. 14). In accordance with plaintiff's understanding of Catholicism, there are three methods of penance: giving alms, works of charity, and acts of abstinence. (Tr. 13). Given his situation, plaintiff reasoned that his only options were prayer and abstaining from eating meat. (Tr. 19). Upon arriving at Tamms Correctional Center in 1998, plaintiff requested a meatless diet on Fridays throughout the year as an act of penance. (Tr. 15 and 17). Plaintiff subsequently began studying about Cistercian monks and other religious orders and oblates who followed the teachings and example of St. Benedict, who was the patron saint of plaintiff's parish and school during his childhood. (Tr. 12 and 16-17).

Plaintiff's continued study of St. Benedict caused him to write to defendant Chaplain Miller on April 23, 2001, requesting that, in accordance with his Roman Catholic upbringing and beliefs, he be given a diet free of "flesh meat on Fridays" as an act of penance. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 5). Plaintiff indicated that Father Fortenberry, the Catholic priest at Tamms, supported and encouraged such acts of penance. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 5). In apparent recognition of prison dietary policies, plaintiff indicated he would accept a "vegetarian/religious no meat diet for all meals." (Plaintiff's Exhibit 5). Tamms offers only the "regular" diet (which may or may not contain meat at any given meal), a vegan diet (containing no animal or animal by-products), and some medical diets.*fn2 (Tr. 148-149 and 152-153). Due to security concerns at Tamms, which is a "Super-Max" facility, the diets are kept to a minimum to prevent the introduction of contraband, and to prevent an inmate's cell location from being identified by tracing the delivery of a special food tray. (Tr. 21 and 149).

Chaplain Miller is an ordained Lutheran minister, affiliated with the Missouri Synod, and head chaplain at Tamms since January 2000. (Tr. 86-87). In an effort to conform with the Institutional Directives, Chaplain Miller reviews requests for religious diets, cross-checking the inmate's declared religious affiliation to determine if a religious diet is required. (Tr. 88-90). Miller looks for confirmation of the religious dietary tenet "on paper"-- some "church document"-- as opposed to a goal the inmate is merely striving to obtain. (Tr. 90-91). In a memo dated May 2, 2002, Chaplain Miller denied plaintiff's request for a religious diet all the time or on all Fridays. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 22). Chaplain Miller explained, "there are many ways to do penance," and plaintiff was free to "choose to not eat meat . . . on Fridays." (Plaintiff's Exhibit 22). Miller further explained that the requested diet "is not required by the Roman Catholic faith nor does Jesus of God's Word command abstention from meat on Fridays for penance." (Plaintiff's Exhibit 22). The chaplain went on to suggest plaintiff read "I Timothy 4:1-5," and he referenced the New American Catholic Bible and cited biblical passages purportedly illustrating"examples of true penance." (Plaintiff's Exhibit 22). According to Chaplain Miller, not eating meat on Fridays as an act of penance does not appear in any scripture. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 22). Chaplain Miller testified that if a Christian of no specific denomination requested a special diet and cited scripture passages that supported the dietary requirement, such a diet would likely be approved, because they are not bound by the tenets of a particular denomination. (Tr. 94-95). If a person's personal beliefs conflicted with the traditional tenets of the religion, Chaplain Miller would look for written substantiation of the variation within that faith group. (Tr. 96). Plaintiff is the only inmate Chaplain Miller has ever known to claim such a religious diet. (Tr. 93). According to Father Fortenberry, a Catholic priest and one of plaintiff's spiritual advisors, plaintiff was the only inmate-- presumably the only Catholic inmate-- he could recall ever making such a dietary request. (Tr. 71-72).

Plaintiff filed an administrative grievance on May 8, 2002. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 1). Plaintiff complained that, as a Roman Catholic, he was forbidden to eat "flesh meat" on Fridays and during Lent, and that non-Catholic chaplains were imposing their beliefs upon him. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 1). Plaintiff wanted a vegan diet on Fridays and during Lent, but he again indicated his willingness to accept a vegan diet on a daily basis for the sake of convenience. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 1). In support of his request for a religious diet, plaintiff cited a religious reference document and Father Fortenberry, the Catholic priest serving Tamms. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 1). The fact that Muslims and Buddhists at Tamms were permitted vegan diets and did not have to "eat around meat" was noted by plaintiff. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 1). Plaintiff offered an alternate remedy: "'OR' stop making special allowances for certain religions that affect all prisoners such as no pork because of Muslims!!!" (Plaintiff's Exhibit 1). This grievance was denied at the institutional level, and ultimately by the Illinois Department of Corrections Administrative Review Board. (Plaintiff's Exhibits 1 and 2).

In June 22, 2002, plaintiff lodged an institutional grievance complaining he had been denied pork on certain dates due to the ban on pork, which he attributed to favoritism toward Muslims. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 11). Plaintiff reiterated his religious belief that he must abstain from eating "flesh meat" on all Fridays and during Lent. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 11).

Plaintiff continued his religious studies and learned that there are two different penitential dietary requirements under the Rule of St. Benedict: (1) abstention from eating the flesh of four-footed animals, which most Benedictines follow; and (2) abstention from all meat, which the Cistercians follow. (Tr. 24-26). On July 20, 2002, plaintiff again wrote to Chaplain Miller, citing the Rule of St. Benedict No. 39, regarding the "flesh of four-footed animals." (Plaintiff's Exhibit 6; see also Plaintiff's 17, p. 62 ("Let everyone, except the sick who are very weak, abstain entirely from eating the meat of four-footed animals.")). Plaintiff also accused Chaplain Miller of forcing his beliefs on plaintiff. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 6). Plaintiff asked that the question be presented to the Religious Advisory Board*fn3 . (Plaintiff's Exhibit 6).

According to the testimony of plaintiff Nelson and defendant Chaplain Miller, some requests for a religious diet are automatically granted, without providing any substantiation; for example, upon request, declared Muslims and Black Hebrew Israelites are automatically given the vegan diet. (Tr. 27 and 91-92). According to Chaplain Miller, this practice existed before he became the Senior Chaplain, and he has continued the practice as a courtesy, and because of his understanding of the impracticalities of preparing food in accordance with the procedures mandated by those religions. (Tr. 91-92 and 98). However, Chaplain Miller acknowledged that not all Muslims adhere to the dietary requirement of "halal," and he considers that their choice. (Tr. 93; see also Tr. 81 (stipulated testimony of Chaplain Haqq)). Jewish inmates are afforded a similar accommodation relative to a kosher diet. (Tr. 105). Miller acknowledged that in the past he has approved vegan diets for some Buddhist inmates, when a faith representative has indicated the inmate would like such a diet, and the diet was in line with Buddhism-- without a precise statement that the vegan diet was a religious requirement. (Tr. 100-102). Chaplain Miller also noted that it is when he does not know about a particular religion that he seeks verification. (Tr. 94).

Plaintiff's July 2002 request to Chaplain Miller was unsuccessful. (Tr. 27). Plaintiff continued to appeal to Chaplain Miller, writing in August 2002 that it is his belief that eating meat on Fridays is a mortal sin. (Plaintiff's Exhibit 21). In support of his beliefs, plaintiff offered Chaplain Miller a letter from Father Fortenberry indicating it is "permissible & ...

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