United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Brunswick Division
GODBEY WOOD, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF GEORGIA
before that Court are Defendants' Objections, dkt. no.
129, to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation
dated January 10, 2017, dkt. no. 127. After an independent
and de novo review of the record, the undersigned
OVERRULES Defendants' Objections, CONCURS with the Report
and Recommendation, and ADOPTS the Report and Recommendation,
as supplemented herein, as the opinion of the Court.
Court's prior Orders lay out the factual and procedural
history of this case in detail. In short, Plaintiff, an
inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Jesup,
Georgia, is a practicing member of the Santeria religion.
This action centers on Plaintiff s allegations that, on
several separate instances, Defendants denied Plaintiff
access to Santeria necklaces required for his religious
practice. After remand by the Eleventh Circuit Court of
Appeals, Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on
Plaintiff's claim for injunctive relief under the
Religious Freedom and Restoration Act ("RFRA"), 42
U.S.C. § 2000bb, et seq. Dkt. No. 119. In their
Motion, Defendants argued that the prison's new policy of
requiring unapproved vendors to undergo a background check
and appear on an inmate's visitation list before sending
religious articles does not violate RFRA. Id.
Specifically, Defendants contended that the policy does not
substantially burden Plaintiff's religious exercise and
that, even if it did, the policy is narrowly tailored to
protect a compelling government interest. Id.
January 10, 2017, the Magistrate Judge recommended denial of
Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. No. 127.
The Magistrate Judge found that the record, "when
construed in favor of Plaintiff, establishes that
Defendants' policy substantially burdened his exercise of
religion . . . . Id. at p. 8. Having determined
Defendants' policy placed a substantial burden on
Plaintiff's exercise of religion, Defendants were then
required to show that their policy furthered a compelling
government interest and was the least restrictive means of
furthering that interest. The Magistrate Judge determined
that, at this stage, Defendants failed on both fronts and
recommended denial of the Motion for Summary Judgment.
Defendants filed Objections on January 24, 2017. Dkt. No.
object only to the Magistrate Judge's determination that
the prison's policy substantially burdens Plaintiff's
religious exercise. Dkt. No. 129, p. 3. In support of their
contention, Defendants largely reiterate the arguments set
forth in their Motion for Summary Judgment, which the
Magistrate Judge fully addressed in his Report.
also attempt to liken the case here to Smith v.
Allen, 502 F.3d 1255 (11th Cir. 2007), abrogated on
other grounds by Sossamon v. Texas, 563 U.S. 277 (2011).
Defendants argue that, just as in Smith, simply
denying Plaintiff's sincere request for a religious item
does not make the policy a substantial burden as a matter of
law. Dkt. No. 129, pp. 4-5. However, in Smith, the
Court determined that there was no substantial burden because
the plaintiff had failed to "establish the need for, or
relevance of" the religious items requested.
Smith, 502 F.3d at 1277, 1280. Plaintiff's need
for and the relevance of the requested religious items are
not in dispute in this case, and thus, this case cannot be
paralleled to Smith.
Defendants argue that there is no substantial burden because
they have not "given Davila an absolute denial' of
his requested religious items" and that he need only
"tak[e] modest administrative steps" to acquire his
necessary religious items. Dkt. No. 129, p. 6. However, as
the Magistrate Judge noted in his Report, the policy
requiring these "modest administrative steps" is
itself problematic-the most concerning aspect of which is its
ambiguous and "fluid" nature. Dkt. No. 124-1, p. 3.
In fact, other than a sparse internal e-mail between the
chaplains and affidavits from Defendant Harris, Defendants
have failed to provide the Court with any concrete policy or
procedure documenting the details and requirements of this
new policy or even its actual existence. Dkt. No. 124-1, p.
6. That Defendants have inconsistently or "fluidly"
applied this purported policy only serves to exacerbate the
contend that the inconsistent enforcement of their new policy
is only relevant to RFRA's compelling interest analysis.
Dkt. No. 129, p. 7. However, a substantial burden can be
found by the plain fact that restrictions are imposed
"arbitrarily, capriciously, or unlawfully."
Westchester Day Sch. v. Vill. of Mamaroneck, 504
F.3d 338, 350 (2d Cir. 2007) (considering land-use
restrictions under RLUIPA); see also Guru Nanak Sikh
Soc'y of Yuba City v. County of Sutter, 456 F.3d
978, 990-91 (9th Cir. 2006). How the government implements
the policy, not merely the policy itself, is highly relevant
to the analysis of governmental action. Furthermore, given
the ambiguity within the purported policy in this case, the
Government's apparently inconsistent application of that
policy to Plaintiff is especially relevant to the Court's
substantial burden analysis.
Defendants argue that, because Plaintiff was not personally
impacted by the lack of time limitation for the chaplain to
process a request, there is no substantial burden on his
religious exercise. Dkt. No. 129, p. 7. However,
construing the record in Plaintiff's favor, this wide
breadth of discretion to grant, deny, or interminably delay
an inmate's request, combined with the ambiguity
surrounding the policy and Defendants' haphazard
application, fortifies Plaintiff's case for a substantial
burden. Essentially, the purported policy gives no assurance
to any inmate-much less Plaintiff-that even complete
compliance will result in receipt of their religious
articles. See Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox
Church, Inc. v. City of New Berlin, 396 F.3d 895, 901
(7th Cir. 2005)(per Posner, J.) (finding substantial burden
under RLUIPA given "delay" and
"uncertainty" arising from need to keep applying
for rezoning). Further, Plaintiff has produced evidence that
his receipt of religious items has been inhibited by this
at this stage, the record before the Court contains
sufficient evidence that Defendants have and will continue to
substantially burden Plaintiff's exercise of his
sincerely held religious beliefs.
the Court ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge's Report and
Recommendation, as supplemented herein, as the opinion of the
Court and DENIES ...