Inmates' religious rights: deference to religious leaders and accommodation of individualized religious beliefs.

AuthorDavis, Heather
PositionNew York State

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)


    Correctional facility officials should defer to religious leaders in determining whether an inmate is a bona-fide member of a recognized religious group.(27) Correctional facility officials cannot make such a determination because correctional facility officials are not sufficiently familiar with the norms, traditions, and practices of religious groups to make an accurate determination of membership.(28) and allowing correctional facility officials to determine membership may lead to discrimination against inmates.(29) Religious leaders should make the determination of membership because religious leaders are sufficiently familiar with the norms, practices, and traditions of their own religious group and tend to have both a moral and civic duty to serve inmates of their own religion.(30) Finally, there are safeguards in place to ensure that religious leaders do not arbitrarily nor discriminatorily deny inmates membership:(31) first, religious leaders must follow not only the regulations of the correctional facilities, but also the regulations set by the governing body of their religion;(32) and, second, there are statutory safeguards to remedy arbitrary actions of religious leaders in correctional facilities.(33)

    1. Problems with Correctional Facility Officials Determining if an inmate is a Bona-Fide Member of a Religion

      Correctional facility officials lack the requisite knowledge of each religious group's practices, norms, and traditions.(34) Without such knowledge, correctional facility officials are not able to effectively determine whether an inmate is a bona-fide member of a religious group.(35) The most serious concern is that correctional facility officials may deem an inmate, to be a member of a religion even though the inmate is not in conformity with the religion's standards; the correctional facility officials would, in effect, be forcing a religion to accept an inmate who does not meet that religion's standards.(36) A religious group, or any private group, cannot be forced to accept an individual who does not meet the group's qualifications.(37)

      Moreover, allowing correctional facility officials to determine who is a member of a religious group may lead to abuse and discrimination.(38) Correctional facility officials may more readily deem inmates of `favored religions' as members and those of `less favored' religions as non-members.(39) Examples of such potentially `less favored' religions are those seen as disruptive and violent by correctional facility officials, such as the Black Muslims in the sixties and seventies,(40) and, more recently, the Rastafarians.(41) Inmates claiming membership in a religious group perceived by correctional facility officials as violent or disruptive may be less likely to be deemed a member of the group, regardless of the inmates' qualifications for membership.

    2. Advantages of Having a Religious Leader Determine Sincerity

      Having a religious leader(42) determine if an inmate is a bona-fide member of a religious group is the best alternative for determining religious membership for a number of reasons. First, each religion has its own membership guidelines. Some religious groups in correctional facilities welcome any inmate who wants to belong to their group.(43) The Muslims, for example, allow inmates to convert during incarceration.(44) In contrast, other religions, such as Judaism, may dictate that for an inmate to be a member in a correctional facility he must have been a member outside of the correctional facility.(45) This variation in standards between religions manifests the necessity for the religious leader to determine membership in correctional facilities. Only religious leaders are sufficiently familiar with the tenets and policies of their particular religion to apply the standards in an objective and uniform manner to all inmates.(46)

      Second, religious leaders employed by the correctional facilities make good faith efforts to serve the inmates of their religious group as best they can and in accordance with their particular religion's tenets because they are motivated to work in correctional facilities out of a sense of civic and moral responsibility.(47)

      Finally, there are two types of safeguards to ensure religious leaders do not deny an inmate membership into a religious group when the inmate qualifies for bona-fide membership. First, the religious leaders must conform not only to the policies of the correctional facilities they work in, but also to the regulations set by the governing body of the leaders' particular religious groups.(48) Each recognized religion active in correctional facilities has policies set by an outside higher governing authority, not by the individual religious leaders at the correctional facilities.(49) This outside governing authority has no direct contact with inmates;(50) the religious leaders are intermediaries who must conform to the promulgated guidelines,(51) and thus there is less risk of discrimination.(52)

      There are also statutory safeguards in place to remedy situations where a religious leader arbitrarily excludes inmates qualified as bona-fide members of a religious group from practicing their religion.(53) The primary safeguard is a grievance process, where inmates may `grieve' the decision of a religious leader not to allow an inmate to receive the privileges of that religion.(54)

      For all the reasons set forth above, the practice of allowing religious leaders to determine if inmates are members of a religious group is the best alternative for making such determination, and this practice has been endorsed by at least one court.(55)

    3. Effective Application of A Religious Leader Determining Membership

      In Bear v. Nix,(56) the Eighth Circuit held that allowing a religious leader to decide whether an inmate is a member of that religion in accordance with the religion's standards is permissible.(57) In Bear, Iowa correctional facility officials deferred on the decision regarding religious membership to a Native American Religion (NAR)...

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