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Ralph Harrison Benning v. State of Georgia

January 13, 2012

RALPH HARRISON BENNING, PLAINTIFF,
v.
STATE OF GEORGIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marc T. Treadwell, Judge United States District Court

ORDER

This matter is before the Court on the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 71) and the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 72). For the reasons set forth below, the Defendants' Motion is granted in part and denied in part, and the Plaintiff's Motion is denied.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Pro se Plaintiff Ralph Harrison Benning is currently an inmate at Autry State Prison in Pelham, Georgia. Benning filed his complaint on December 11, 2008, against the State of Georgia, the Georgia Board of Corrections (the "Board"), the Georgia Department of Corrections ("GDOC"), and Commissioner Brian Owens, in his official capacity, contending that the Defendants, by the enactment and enforcement of grooming policies, violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1. (Doc. 1).

In his complaint, Benning states that he is a "Torah-Observant Jew." By virtue of his religion, Benning claims that he is forbidden from removing his earlocks.*fn1 He alleges that the Defendants' refusal to allow him to grow his earlocks imposes a substantial burden on his religious exercise and that their refusal serves no compelling governmental interest.

Benning also claims that he is forbidden by his religion from using any type of razor or blade to remove his facial hair. He is permitted, however, to use a depilatory to remove his facial hair.*fn2 In light of Board of Corrections Rule 125-2-3-.04 and the GDOC grooming policy, which prohibit beards, Benning requested that the Defendants provide him with a depilatory in the same manner razors are provided to other prisoners for the purpose of removing his facial hair. The Defendants refused to provide the depilatory, and Benning contends this refusal imposes a substantial burden on his religious exercise. He also contends that there is no compelling governmental interest in refusing to provide him with a depilatory.

Benning bases his beliefs and understanding of Jewish laws and customs on the Code of Jewish Law, generally referred to as the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh. (Doc. 87-1). It is undisputed that the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh is an authoritative source of Jewish laws and customs. Benning claims that Chapter 170 provides the basis for his beliefs at issue in this case. Chapter 170 provides:

1. It is forbidden to shave off the hair of the temples on both sides of the head at their juncture with the cheeks at the ears. According to some authorities, it is forbidden to cut them even with scissors, close to the skin, as with a razor. Therefore, if it is necessary to shave off the hair from the temples for the sake of health, one must take care not to shave close to the skin. The length of the earlocks is estimated to be from the forehead as far as below the ear, where the cheeks widen.

2. The Torah has forbidden to shave the "corners" of the beard with a razor only. The beard has five "corners," and there are many opinions as to what they are. Therefore, he who fears God, should not use a razor on any part of the beard, even on his upper lip or under the chin. There is no difference between a razor and a sharp stone which cuts the hair, such as a pumice stone; they are both forbidden. Those who remove their beard by means of a salve, should be careful not to scrape it off with a knife which might cut the hair; but they should use instead a strip of wood.

(Doc. 87-1). Initially, it seemed that Benning contended that his religious beliefs prohibited cutting his earlocks at all. However, he now acknowledges that Chapter 170 only prohibits shaving or closely cutting the hair of the temples and beard. It is acceptable to trim the earlocks with scissors, for example, so long as the earlocks are not cut close to the skin.

Benning asks the Court to order the Defendants to allow him to grow his earlocks and to provide him with a depilatory free of cost in the same manner razors are provided to other inmates. Both parties have moved for summary judgment.

II. DISCUSSION

Summary judgment must be granted if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material facts and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). "A factual dispute is genuine only if 'a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" Info. Sys. & Networks Corp. v. City of Atlanta, 281 F.3d 1220, 1224 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting United States v. Four Parcels of Real Prop., 941 F.2d 1428, 1437 (11th Cir. 1991)). The district court must "view all evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and resolve all reasonable doubts about the facts in its favor." Id. The burden rests with the moving party to prove that no genuine issue of material fact exists. Id.

If the moving party discharges this burden, the burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and present specific evidence showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact or that the moving party is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986);Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). This evidence must consist of more than mere conclusory allegations or legal conclusions. See Avirgan v. Hull, 932 F.2d 1572, 1577 (11th Cir. 1991). Ultimately, summary judgment must be entered where "the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of [his] case with respect to which [he] has the burden of proof." Celotex,477 U.S. at 323.

The standard of review for cross-motions for summary judgment does not differ from the standard applied when only one party files a motion. Am. Bankers Ins. Group v. United States, 408 F.3d 1328, 1331 (11th Cir. 2005). "Cross-motions for summary judgment will not, in themselves, warrant the court in granting summary judgment unless one of the parties is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on facts that are not genuinely disputed." United States v. Oakley, 744 F.2d 1553, 1555 (11th Cir. 1984). The Court will consider each motion on its own merits, resolving all reasonable inferences against the party whose motion is under consideration. Am. Bankers Ins. Group, 408 F.3d at 1331.

A. RLUIPA

In a broad bipartisan effort, Congress enacted RLUIPA, in part, to protect and accommodate the religious exercise of prisoners. Under section 3 of RLUIPA,

No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution . even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a). Section 3 of RLUIPA "affords to prison inmates a heightened protection from government-imposed burdens by requiring that the government demonstrate that the substantial burden on the prisoner's religious exercise is justified by a compelling, rather than merely a legitimate, governmental interest." Smith v. Allen, 502 F.3d 1255, 1266 (11th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), abrogated on other grounds by Sossamon v. Texas, __ U.S. __, 131 S. Ct. 1651 (2011). RLUIPA contains an express private cause of action allowing a person to assert "a violation of [RLUIPA] as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government." 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-2(a). The statute further defines "government" to include states, counties, municipalities, departments, agencies, their instrumentalities and officers, and persons acting under color of state law. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-5(4)(A).

Because Benning has not asserted claims for money damages, but rather seeks only injunctive relief, this Court need not address the issue which, until recently, has divided the courts of appeals-whether states waived their sovereign immunity to claims for monetary relief by accepting federal funds. See Sossamon, 131 S. Ct. 1651.

However, because the Defendants have, perhaps only in passing, asserted claims of immunity, the Court will address those arguments before addressing the substance of Benning's RLUIPA claim. Although the Supreme Court recently held in Sossamon v. Texas, that states, by accepting federal funds, do not consent to waive their immunity to suits for monetary damages under RLUIPA, that decision does not shield states from all potential suits and liability. RLUIPA unambiguously creates a private cause of action for "appropriate relief" against a "government," which is specifically defined to include states, state departments and agencies, and officials acting under color of state law. Thus, Benning's RLUIPA claim for injunctive relief is properly asserted against the State of Georgia, the Board, the GDOC, and Commissioner Brian Owens in his official capacity.*fn3

To succeed on a claim under RLUIPA, a plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case. To establish a prima facie case under section 3 of RLUIPA, a plaintiff must demonstrate (1) that he engaged in a religious exercise; and (2) that the religious exercise was substantially burdened. Smith, 502 F.3d at 1276. If a plaintiff meets his burden of showing that the challenged government action substantially burdens the exercise of his religious beliefs, the government must then demonstrate that the imposition of the burden or refusal to accommodate a plaintiff's belief furthers a compelling government interest by the least restrictive means. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a); 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-2(b). "[I]f the plaintiff fails to present evidence to support a prima facie case under RLUIPA, the court need not inquire into whether the governmental interest at stake was compelling." Smith, 502 F.3d at 1276.*fn4

i. Religious Exercise

The Supreme Court has cautioned that it is "not within the judicial ken to question the centrality of particular beliefs or practices to a faith, or the validity of particular litigants' interpretation of those creeds." Hernandez v. C.I.R., 490 U.S. 680, 699 (1989). Thus, RLUIPA defines "religious exercise" broadly to include "any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief." 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-5(7)(A). "Although RLUIPA bars inquiry into whether a particular belief or practice is 'central' to a prisoner's religion . the Act does not preclude inquiry into the sincerity of a prisoner's professed religiosity." Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 725 n. 13 (2005). Therefore, to be protected, a plaintiff must show that the practice he wishes to engage in is both sincerely held and rooted in religious belief. Id. (citation omitted). Here, because the Defendants dispute that Benning's religious beliefs are sincerely held, the Court must first address this threshold inquiry before deciding whether Benning has established the remaining element of his prima facie case.

The source of Benning's understanding of the requirements and practices of Judaism is the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh, or Code of Jewish Law, which Benning has had in his possession since at least the early 2000s. (Doc. 87-1). As noted, Benning finds ...


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