United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Dublin Division
K. EPPS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
August 15, 2017, the Court held a bench trial concerning
Plaintiff's claims that Defendants' operation of a
religious program at Wheeler Correctional Facility
(“WCF”) violated the Establishment Clause of the
United States Constitution, U.S. Const. Amend. I, and the
Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
(“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et
seq. In accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
52(a)(1), the Court makes its findings of fact and
conclusions of law.
FINDINGS OF FACT
Curtis Hunter is a prisoner in custody of the Georgia
Department of Corrections. From April 15, 2014 through
November 7, 2014, Plaintiff was assigned to Unit 9N of WCF, a
private prison operated by Defendant Corrections Corporation
of America (“CCA”). During this time period,
Defendant Damon Hininger was President of CCA, Defendant
Jason Medlin was warden of WCF, Defendant Ron Day was
chaplain of WCF, and Defendant Jay Phillips was a facilitator
assigned to WCF's Life Principles Program (“the
Program”), which was housed in Unit 9N.
arrival at WCF, Plaintiff was initially assigned to a top
bunk because his bottom bunk profile expired before his
transfer. While being processed through qualifications,
Plaintiff expressed his difficulty in finding a bottom bunk.
A WCF employee told Plaintiff there was a bottom bunk in Unit
9N, where the Program was housed, and he could stay there
until renewal of his bottom bunk profile. The employee told
him the majority of the Program utilized biblical and
Christian materials, but also included Islam, Plaintiff's
religion. Plaintiff decided to join the Program because (1)
it offered his religion; (2) he had the opportunity to learn
about other religions; and (3) a bottom bunk was available.
Program in full lasted nine months, and consisted of three
daily sessions. The first daily session involved memorization
of Romans 1 and 2, viewing gospel videos by Bill Gaither, and
reviewing Psalms and Proverbs with open discussion. During
the second daily session, guest speakers lectured on the
Bible. The third session involved Christian devotions and
testimonies. On Fridays, the first session involved Christian
worship and praise songs rather than the usual gospel videos
and scripture memorization. Books utilized in the Program
included “Commands of Christ” and “Power to
True Success.” The Program also involved anger
resolution seminar videos. Program materials were biblical or
Christian in nature.
in the Program was voluntary, and an inmate could leave the
Program at any time. While participation was voluntary, once
enrolled in the Program, group sessions were mandatory
because it was an inmate's OMS assignment, or job
assignment, within WCF. Failure to attend a group session
would result in prison officials issuing a disciplinary
report (“DR”). None of the group sessions
interfered with Plaintiff's ability to regularly read the
Quran, pray, or attend WCF's Jumu'ah service for
Muslims on Friday afternoons.
Program was staffed primarily by volunteers. However,
Defendant Phillips was on staff at WCF and specifically
assigned to oversee Unit 9N, which housed the Program.
Defendant Phillips regularly visited the Program during
Plaintiff's time, and was responsible for making sure
every participant attended the first group session. Plaintiff
testified Chaplain Day never visited the Program, and all
witnesses testified Defendant Hinninger and Defendant Medlin
never visited the Program. All funds for the Program came
from the inmate benefit fund, which is derived from
commissary sales and inmate telephone fees.
never filed a grievance about the Program or received a DR
during his seven months in the Program. Only after Plaintiff
left the Program did he file a grievance and this lawsuit.
Plaintiff was the first inmate to complain about the Program.
In response to Plaintiff's complaints, WCF discontinued
the Program and replaced it with the Bureau of Prisons
(“BOP”) life skills program.
CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
The Program Violated the Establishment Clause Because Its
Primary Effect Was Inculcation and Indoctrination of
The Establishment Clause Standard
Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states,
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion.” U.S. Const. Amend. I. This restriction
applies to states, as well as state-created entities and
their employees, through the Due Process Clause of the
Fourteenth Amendment. Holloman v. Harland, 370 F.3d
1252, 1284 (11th Cir. 2004). The Establishment Clause erects
a barrier between government and religious entities
“‘depending on all the circumstances of a
particular relationship.'” Lynch v.
Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 678-79 (1984), (quoting
Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 614 (1971));
see McCreary Cty. v. Am. Civ. Liberties Union, 545
U.S. 844, 867 (2005) (“[U]nder the Establishment Clause
detail is key.”). For those “who wrote the
Religion Clauses of the First Amendment the
‘establishment' of a religion connoted sponsorship,
financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in
religious activity.” Walz v. Tax Comm'n,
397 U.S. 664, 668 (1970).
Establishment Clause applies only to state actors, which
includes state and federal governments as well as a limited
class of private entities. “Where a function which is
traditionally the exclusive prerogative of the state . . . is
performed by a private entity, state action is
present.” Ancata v. Prison Health Servs.,
Inc., 769 F.2d 700, 703 (11th Cir. 1985) (citations
omitted). For example, private medical providers treating
state inmates are liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for
deliberate indifference to medical needs because their
treatment constitutes state action. See id.;
Buckner v. Toro, 116 F.3d 450, 452 (11th Cir. 1997)
(“When a private entity . . . contracts with a county
to provide medical services to inmates, it performs a
function traditionally within the exclusive prerogative of
the state.”). Section 1983 also applies to the
“‘acts and decisions of individual government
actors.'” Brunskill v. Boyd, 141 F.
App'x 771, 775 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Holloman ex
rel. Holloman v. Harland, 370 F.3d 1252, 1284 (11th Cir.
2004)). This Court previously found, despite the lack of
direct government funding, Defendants engaged in state action
in implementing the Program. (Doc. no. 142-1, pp. 4-6.) The
Court hereby reaffirms this finding.
Supreme Court has not considered the Establishment Clause
within the context of a prison. However, in an unpublished
case, the Eleventh Circuit applied the
Lemon-Agostini test to a faith-based dormitory
program inside a prison. Smith v. Governor for
Alabama, 562 F. App'x 806, 816 (11th Cir. 2014). The
Eleventh Circuit has consistently applied the Lemon
test outside of cases involving legislative prayer.
Compare King v. Richmond Cty., Ga., 331 F.3d 1271,
1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (applying Lemon test to court
seal containing ten commandments) and Holloman, 370
F.3d at 1284 (applying Lemon test to teacher's
moment of silence) with Pelphrey v. Cobb Cty., Ga.,
547 F.3d 1263, 1276 (11th Cir. 2008) (applying Marsh
to prayer by county ...