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Garcia v. GODINEZ

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

June 10, 2015

GERARDO GARCIA, #R06987 Plaintiff,


GILBERT, District Judge

Plaintiff Gerardo Garcia, an inmate at Menard Correctional Center (“Menard”), brings this action for deprivations of his constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff also asserts a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq. and an Illinois state law claim under the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“IRFRA”). Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated his constitutional and statutory rights when they denied him the ability to freely exercise his religion. Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as monetary damages. The complaint is now before the Court for a preliminary review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.

Under § 1915A, the Court is required to promptly screen prisoner complaints to filter out nonmeritorious claims. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The Court is required to dismiss any portion of the complaint that is legally frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or asks for money damages from a defendant who by law is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b).

The Complaint

In a 29-page complaint (supported by 137 pages of exhibits), Plaintiff asserts multiple claims against the following seven defendants: S.A. Godinez (director of the Illinois Department of Corrections (“IDOC”)); John Doe #1[1] (chief of operations at IDOC); Stephen Keim (chief chaplain of all IDOC facilities); Kimberly Butler (assistant warden of programs at Menard); Howard Harner (chief chaplain at Menard); John Doe #2 (chaplain at Menard); and M. Scheiman (IDOC-contracted rabbi at Menard). Plaintiff seeks to sue all Defendants in their individual and official capacities.

The complaint alleges that Defendants have repeatedly violated Plaintiff’s right to freely exercise his religion by denying Plaintiff the right to practice his sincerely-held religious beliefs, adopting policies that interfered with that right without any legitimate penological justification, and/or condoning the adoption and enforcement of policies that interfered with Plaintiff’s right to freely exercise his religion. The allegations are sufficient to state a claim against each of the Defendants. Therefore, for purposes of the Court’s threshold review, the Court will simply highlight the basic and most egregious allegations.

In March 2012, Plaintiff, who was then incarcerated at Pinckneyville Correctional Center (“Pinckneyville”), sought to change his religious affiliation from Hebrew Israelite to Orthodox Jewish. (Doc. 1, ¶ 14). In May 2012, the chaplain at Pinckneyville changed Plaintiff’s religious affiliation to Jewish. Id. at ¶ 16.

Since April 2012, Plaintiff has, on numerous occasions, requested various accommodations so that he could freely exercise his sincerely held beliefs in accordance with his understanding of Orthodox Judaism. Id. at ¶¶ 14-68. His requested accommodations have included a kosher diet, the use of religious items (such as tefillin, kippah, candles, and prayer shawls), and participation in Jewish services. The complaint describes in great detail all of the ways that Plaintiff has tried to learn more about and practice his faith including reaching out to Jewish advocacy and educational organizations.

On June 14, 2013, Plaintiff was transferred from Pinckneyville to Menard. Id. at ¶ 32. Two days later, Plaintiff sent a letter to the Menard Chaplaincy Department requesting various accommodations, including a kosher diet and the use of certain religious items. Id. at Ex. 37. Shortly thereafter, Defendant Harner (Chaplain) approved Plaintiff’s request for a kosher diet. Id. at ¶ 35.

Plaintiff’s chief complaint since being transferred to Menard is that he has been denied the use of Tefillin. The Illinois Department of Corrections procedural bulletin on Tefillin describes it as “two sealed leather covered boxes that contain several texts of the Torah handwritten on small parchment scrolls” that are affixed to the forehead and arm. Id. at Ex. 41. The bulletin recognizes that “Jewish males are required to don Tefillin once daily (except on the Sabbath and certain Holy Days), during the Morning Prayer service.” Id. Tefillin purchased by inmates are stored in the chaplain’s office. According to the June 2013 bulletin, “It is the responsibility of the facility chaplain to insure that Jewish offenders are issued call passes to the chaplain’s office . . . to come to the chaplain’s office and put on Tefillin.” Id.

The June 2013 bulletin noted that Jewish offenders are permitted to purchase Tefillin from The Aleph Institute (“Aleph”), a national organization that serves Jewish inmates. Id.

Plaintiff attempted to purchase Tefillin from Aleph, in accordance with the IDOC Tefillin bulletin, but his request was denied on the grounds that he is not Jewish. Id. at Ex. 41. In a letter to Plaintiff, Aleph explained, “A Jew is someone who was born from a Jewish mother or who has gone through an official Orthodox conversion (outside of a prison setting).” Id. The letter concluded, “P.S. in regard to buying tefillin we will not sell anyone who is not Jewish tefillin.” Id.

Over the next several months, Plaintiff sent requests to Defendants Butler, Harner, and Chaplain John Doe #2 seeking permission to purchase Tefillin and a bag for his Tallith (prayer shawl). Id. at ¶ 44. In response to a letter from Plaintiff sent on January 1, 2014 inquiring about the status of his request, Defendant Harner stated, “You may order tefillin, but it cannot be kept in your box.” Id. at Ex. 53.

Having received permission, Plaintiff’s sister ordered Tefillin and had it shipped to Plaintiff, along with a Spanish Torah, and Tallit bag. Id. at Exs. 54 and 55. Plaintiff contacted Defendant Harner a few weeks later to find out when he would be able to pray with tefillin. This time Defendant Harner replied, “The procedural bulletin on tefillin requires instructions to have been given by the rabbi.” Id. at 57 and 58.

Unbeknownst to Plaintiff, IDOC revised the procedural bulletin on tefillin in September 2013 and added a provision stating that only inmates “who have self-declared as being Jewish, and have received instruction for putting on Tefillin from the Jewish Contractual Vendor for the IDOC are eligible to use Tefillin.” Id. at Ex. 62. However, Defendant Scheiman, the IDOC-contracted rabbi, refused to instruct Plaintiff on tefillin because he did not consider Plaintiff to be Jewish. Id. at ¶ 48. He told Plaintiff he could watch, but he would not give him instructions. Id. Plaintiff next requested permission to be allowed to use his tefillin without Defendant Scheiman’s instructions, or to be given instructions by another chaplain or rabbi. Id. Defendant Harner forwarded Plaintiff’s request to the Religious Advisory Board. Id.

Plaintiff sent a letter to Defendant Godinez requesting that the procedure on Tefillin be changed or that an accommodation be made for him. Defendant Godinez forwarded this request to Defendant Keim (IDOC Chief Chaplain). Id. at ¶ 58. Defendant Keim failed to address Plaintiff’s request for an accommodation, and instead simply referred back to the IDOC procedure on Tefillin. In addition, Defendant Butler signed off on a counselor’s response to a grievance filed by Plaintiff, which acknowledged that the IDOC procedure prevented Plaintiff from using his tefillin because Defendant Scheiman did not consider him to be Jewish and directed Plaintiff to find out from Defendant Scheiman what documentation was needed to prove he was Jewish. Id. at ¶ 64.

On March 27, 2015, the Administrative Review Board denied Plaintiff’s request to use Teffillin finding that the “issue was appropriately addressed by the facility Administration.” Id. at Ex. 112. Among the 112 exhibits attached to the complaint are 13 affidavits from inmates attesting ...

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