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Stricklandd v. Godinez

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

March 20, 2017



          NANCY J. ROSENSTENGEL United States District Judge.

         Now pending before the Court are cross motions for summary judgment filed by the parties (Docs. 102, 131).[1] For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion is granted, and Plaintiff's motion is denied.


         Plaintiff Erik C. Strickland, an inmate of the Illinois Department of Corrections (“IDOC”) filed this lawsuit on September 3, 2014 (Doc. 1), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging he was being denied the opportunity to practice various aspects of his religion, Asatru/Odinism, while incarcerated at Lawrence Correctional Center. Strickland named various prison officials as defendants, including: Salvador Godinez, IDOC Director from 2012 to 2015; Ty Bates, IDOC Deputy Director from 2012 to 2013; Donald Gaetz, IDOC Deputy Director from 2013 to 2014; Stephen Keim, IDOC Chief Chaplain from 2012 to present; Marc Hodge, Warden of Lawrence from 2012 to 2013; Steven Duncan, the Warden of Lawrence at the time of filing; Beth Tredway, Assistant Warden of Programs from 2012 to 2015; David Vaughn, IDOC Chaplain from 2012 to present; Jerry Harper, Correctional and Intelligence Officer; and William Loy, Correctional and Intelligence Officer. Strickland is proceeding on three counts: Count 1 alleges claims under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a), against IDOC administrators; Count 2 alleges the same RLUIPA claims against Lawrence officials; and Count 3 alleges First Amendment claims against Intelligence Officers Loy and Harper related to Strickland's desire to engage in group worship (Docs. 8, 85).

         Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on April 6, 2016 (Doc. 102). Strickland filed a pro se response on June 22, 2016 (Doc. 123), which was withdrawn by assigned counsel (Doc. 124). Strickland, through counsel, then filed a combined response and cross-motion for summary judgment (Doc. 131). Defendants have not filed a response to the cross-motion.

         In their motion for summary judgment, Defendants argue that they were not personally involved in any alleged violation of Strickland's rights, that Strickland cannot show that the exercise of his religion was substantially burdened, that they have a compelling governmental interest in imposing a burden on his religious practice, and that they are entitled to qualified immunity. Strickland concedes that the § 1983 claims contained in Count 1 should be dismissed for lack of personal involvement; however, he argues that his religious practice was substantially burdened, that the prison did not impose the least restrictive means, that the prison had alternative means to advance its legitimate penological interests, and that qualified immunity is limited to Strickland's claims for monetary relief under § 1983.


         Strickland is a practicing member of the Asatru religion, also known as Odinism. As part of his religious observance, he has requested various items in his cell, including an altar cloth, a rune set, a second medallion, a wooden drinking horn, a wooden sacramental bowl, and an adorned alter, among other things (Plaintiff's Statement of Undisputed Fact (“PSUF”) ¶17, Doc. 131, pp. 3-6). These items are used in both individual and group worship, although group worship also requires “sacred land” and a “wooden Thor's hammer” (PSUF ¶ 15). Group worship was allowed at Lawrence, in part because of Strickland's advocacy, beginning on July 19, 2013 (PSUF ¶ 12). Defendants Harper and Loy supervised and monitored the group services (PSUF ¶ 13). However, group worship was cancelled in June 2015 (PSUF ¶14). Strickland also observes Blót, a ritual observation of thirteen holy days, five of which include ritual feasting (PSUF ¶ 16).

         While at Lawrence, Strickland has been denied a second medallion (despite IDOC rules allowing inmates to possess two medallions), all items for individual and group worship, and the ability to celebrate all thirteen Blóts (Strickland has been permitted to celebrate only two Blóts) (PSUF ¶¶ 18-21). The prison also has substituted alternative items for those desired by Strickland, but according to Strickland the substitutions are “made from material that does not align with Asatru beliefs and values” (i.e. plastic bowls and cups for their wooden counterparts) (PSUF ¶ 21). Defendant Vaughn is the Chaplain at Lawrence who has authority over religious services, items, and practices (Defendants' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (“DSUF”) ¶ 9). Defendant Keim is IDOC's Chief Chaplain (DSUF ¶ 45).

         It is undisputed that security threat groups (“STGs”), i.e., gangs or unauthorized organizations in prison, pose a significant risk to inmate and jail officials' health, safety, and security (DSUF ¶ 15, Doc. 103-1).[2] STGs pose a threat by violating various prison rules, trading and trafficking in contraband, exploiting offenders, participating and ordering assaults on inmates and staff, exhibiting extreme acts of violence, and participating or conducting illegal activity. (DSUF ¶ 15). One such STG at Lawrence is the white supremacists group (DSUF ¶ 18). STGs can use religious activity, and in particular have used the Asatru religion, as a “guise for white supremacist STG activity” (DSUF ¶ 20). Strickland himself admits that people who identify with white supremacists use Odinism as a “cover” (Doc. 103-3, p. 91). Strickland denies affiliation with a gang or any involvement in STG activity, however, and he does not associate Asatru with violence (PSUF ¶ 25).

         It is also undisputed that Strickland was transferred to Lawrence from Shawnee Correctional Center in 2012 due to a disciplinary infraction for STG activity (DSUF ¶ 21). In particular, prison officials were informed that Strickland was the mastermind in recruitment activities for the white supremacist group at Shawnee, which was orchestrated under the cover of group Asatru/Odinism worship (DSUF ¶ 24). Strickland admitted to officials at Shawnee that he was affiliated with the white supremacists. Strickland also has various tattoos demonstrating his affiliation: an embellished swastika, the number 1488, [3] and the letters “WP” in reference to “white power” (DSUF ¶ 23).

         Because of Strickland's history, he was monitored by the Intelligence Unit at Lawrence for continued STG activity (DSUF ¶¶ 22-23). Defendant Harper worked in the Intelligence Unit in some capacity during the relevant time period; he is currently the Intelligence Unit Coordinator at Lawrence (DSUF ¶ 12). Defendant Loy was an Intelligence Officer in 2012 and is currently a Correctional Sergeant (DSUF ¶ 10). Defendants Harper and Loy were assigned to monitor and investigate Strickland's conduct (DSUF ¶¶ 25, 26, 35). Strickland claims Defendants Harper and Loy threatened him while he was in the chow line after he filed grievances regarding the denial of his right to practice Asatru, insinuating that if he participated in his group worship services, he would receive a STG ticket (Doc. 103-3, p. 46). As a result, Strickland claims, he did not fully participate in group worship services (Doc. 103-3, p. 47).

         After consulting with the Intelligence Unit, Chaplain Vaughn denied Strickland's request for various religious items because they contained symbols associated with white supremacists or were considered safety and security threats (DSUF ¶ 52). For example, a requested red and white altar cloth had a swastika on it (DSUF ¶ 29);[4] the additional medallion Strickland requested had a sun wheel on it (which is deemed to represent a swastika) (DSUF ¶ 30);[5] and a book, “The Handbook of the Ulfhednar Kindred of Asatru, ” contained white supremacist imagery including a tree with a noose hanging from a branch (DSUF ¶ 41).[6] Strickland was denied the option of keeping a rune set in his cell because they had been used by other inmates to “manipulate other offenders to commit assaults or violence . . . .” (DSUF ¶ 59). Strickland was nonetheless permitted to keep a set in the chapel for use during group worship or during scheduled visits to the chapel (DSUF ¶ 59). Wooden objects, like the requested drinking horn, bowl, and a staff, were rejected because they could be fashioned into weapons (DSUF ¶ 60-61). Strickland was given plastic bowl and cup alternatives (Id.).[7] The in-cell “adorned” alter was rejected because it would not fit into a property box (where inmates are directed to keep their personal property) and would obscure a view of the cell (DSUF ¶¶ 63-64). However, Strickland was permitted to adorn his bed or shelf in his cell and worship individually as an alternative (Id.). He also was allowed to create a Thor's Hammer, oath ring, staff, and sunwheel out of cardboard (DSUF ¶¶ 78-79).

         The limitations on Strickland's celebration of Blót were unrelated to Odinism or Strickland's history of involvement in white supremacist groups. Chaplain Vaughn was required to accommodate 43 different religions practiced by Lawrence inmates, and all religions were limited to two religious holidays due to limited resources, scheduling, and security concerns (DSUF ¶ 68-69). Strickland's request for “sacred land” was denied “for safety, security, and economic concerns” because “Lawrence does not have sacred land to donate” to Strickland (DSUF ¶ 74). Strickland's request to convene with a group outside of the chapel to conduct certain ceremonies also was denied because of inmate movement (a number of inmates would be moving around the facility at the same time creating a security concern) (DSUF ¶¶ 83-4).

         Lawrence officials did, however, allow group worship consistent with the requirements of the Illinois Administrative Code. In particular, because there was no chaplain who was available to lead such services, the group needed pre-approval and a staff person to attend and monitor (DSUF ¶¶ 32-33). When Strickland's worship group was monitored by an intelligence officer, the group “followed the approved service or sermon as required by the Department rule” (DSUF ¶ 36). When an intelligence officer was not present, however, Strickland “and two individuals would have their own separate discussions during services” (DSUF ¶ 37).

         After group services began, additional inmates, uniformly white, began identifying as Asatru (DSUF ¶ 38). Strickland solicited help from persons not incarcerated to conduct background checks on these new individuals in order to ensure that none had sex offenses (sexual offenders are not welcomed by white supremacists) (DSUF ¶ 40). Strickland also sought to incorporate “parliamentary procedure[s]” to the group worship (DSUF ¶ 45). This ...

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