Inmates' Religious Rights: Deference to Religious Leaders and Accommodation of Individualized Religious Beliefs

Article excerpt

In Jackson v. Mann,(1) an inmate in a New York State correctional facility claimed Department of Correctional Services [DOCS] officials were violating his First Amendment right to exercise his religion.(2) The inmate, Nathaniel Jackson, voluntarily stated his religion as Jewish upon entering the New York correctional system in 1986, and subsequently received kosher meals at various facilities.(3) In 1995 Jackson was transferred to the Shawangunk correctional facility, and he requested a continuance of kosher meals.(4) Shawangunk's rabbi refused to recognize Jackson as Jewish because Jackson could not prove he was Jewish in accordance with the standards of Judaism set by the New York Board of Rabbis, and the Shawangunk facility deferred to the rabbi's decision and removed Jackson from the kosher meal program.(5) Jackson sued the rabbi and other correctional facility officials alleging that denying him kosher meals violated his First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment Rights.(6) Upon appeal of summary judgment entered in favor of the correctional facility officials,(7) the Second Circuit found that Jackson's claim raised a genuine issue of material fact,(8) that being whether Jackson sincerely held his religious beliefs.(9) The court held an inmate need not be a member of a religious group to be considered sincere in his or her religious beliefs,(10) and remanded the case for a sincerity determination.(11)

Jackson left open the question of who should determine whether an inmate is a bona-fide member of a religious group,(12) and this comment argues that determination should be left to religious leaders, not correctional facility officials.(13) In New York, inmates who are members of religious groups receive a set of privileges in accordance with the dictates of that religious group.(14) A religious group is defined in correctional facilities as a group that is officially recognized for program activities.(15) Correctional facility officials will recognize any group as qualified for religious activities as long as the group has: 1) an outside religious leader, 2) a body of dogma, and 3) some tradition or history indicating the group was not formed in the correctional facility.(16)

Regardless of who makes the determination of membership, inmates who are deemed not to be members of religious groups may request their own personal religious beliefs be accommodated.(17) Inmates who are deemed not be, a member of a religious group may either claim they belong to a religious group that correctional facility officials do not recognize, or claim they practice a recognized religion in their own unique way.(18) These inmates are said to hold "individualized" religious beliefs.(19)

Correctional facility officials are under no obligation to accommodate these individualized religious beliefs if the inmate is not sincere in his or her religious beliefs.(20) Traditionally, sincerity has been determined as a threshold matter on a case-by-case basis.(21) If the inmate is sincere, correctional facility officials must follow the constitutional standards set forth by the Supreme Court to accommodate the inmate's beliefs, as well as the statutory requirements set forth by Congress.(22)

The practice of determining sincerity of inmates' individualized religious beliefs on a case-by-case basis is untenable in the correctional facility setting.(23) This comment sets forth a solution that correctional facility officials should assume all inmates with individualized religious beliefs are sincere in those beliefs and provide a uniform set of privileges to accommodate those beliefs.(24) Providing this uniform set of privileges is constitutionally permissible under both the traditional standard set forth by the Supreme Court in Turner v. Safley,(25) and under the recently enacted Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.(26)

I. DEFERRING TO THE RELIGIOUS LEADER TO DETERMINE MEMBERSHIP

Correctional facility officials should defer to religious leaders in determining whether an inmate is a bona-fide member of a recognized religious group. …