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WAAHID MUSLIM v. FRAME

June 30, 1995

WAAHID MUSLIM, a/k/a DAVID RICHARDSON, Plaintiff
v.
THOMAS FRAME, et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: LOUIS H. POLLAK

 Waahid Muslim brought this section 1983 suit challenging the headgear restrictions imposed by the Chester County Prison. Under the regulations in force while Mr. Muslim was in custody as a pre-trial detainee from July 7, 1992 to October 18, 1993, inmates were not permitted to wear headgear in the common areas of the prison, although the wearing of religious headgear was permitted in the cell blocks and during religious services. *fn1" Mr. Muslim asserts that the regulations violate his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments because the regulations restrict him from wearing a kufiyyah, or kufi, the Muslim prayer cap, which the plaintiff considers an expression of his Muslim faith. Defendants, Warden Thomas G. Frame and prison officials D. Edward McFadden and Dale Guyer, assert that the headgear regulations are justified to protect prison security.

 Mr. Muslim commenced this action pro se ; but, when the complexity of the issues tendered by the plaintiff became apparent, counsel was appointed to represent him. The case was then transferred by this court to Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Rueter. After discovery was complete, both plaintiff and defendants moved for summary judgment.

 Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Rueter has filed a Report and Recommendation, in which he recommends that defendants' motion be granted and plaintiff's motion be denied. Judge Rueter concluded that Mr. Muslim had not produced specific facts showing that the government had substantially burdened his free exercise of religion. Mr. Muslim filed two objections to Judge Rueter's recommendation. First, he claims that Pennsylvania law creates a liberty interest cognizable under the Fourteenth Amendment for prisoners to wear religious ornaments, including a kufi, while in prison, and that the headgear restrictions at issue here deprive him of this interest. Second, Mr. Muslim contends that the prison regulations discriminate between Christians and Muslims, in that Christian inmates are permitted to wear crucifixes in the common areas while Muslims are not allowed to wear kufis. Defendants argue that the court should not consider these objections because Mr. Muslim made them in a pro se letter to this court, which he did not file or serve on Defendants.

 I do not adopt Judge Rueter's report, but conclude that defendants' summary judgment motion should be granted in part and denied in part, and that plaintiff's summary judgment motion should be denied.

 I. Plaintiff's Claim for Injunctive Relief

 In his complaint, plaintiff seeks both damages and injunctive relief. Since the plaintiff filed the complaint, however, he has been released from the Chester County Prison. As a result, plaintiff's claim for injunctive relief must be denied as moot. Defendants' summary judgment motion is granted with respect to plaintiff's claim for an injunction.

 II. Plaintiff's Free Exercise Claim

 In St. Claire v. Cuyler, 634 F.2d 109 (3d Cir. 1980), the Third Circuit upheld prison headgear restrictions against a free exercise challenge brought by an inmate who wished to wear a kufi throughout the prison area. The St. Claire court applied a reasonableness standard, under which "First amendment freedoms may be curtailed whenever [prison] officials, in the exercise of their informed discretion, reasonably conclude that the first amendment exercise possesses 'the likelihood of disruption to prison order or stability, or otherwise interferes with the legitimate penological objectives of the prison environment.'" 634 F.2d at 114 (quoting Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners' Labor Union, 433 U.S. 119, 132, 53 L. Ed. 2d 629, 97 S. Ct. 2532 (1977)).

 The standard applied in St. Claire no longer remains the law. In 1993, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb, to require courts addressing free exercise claims to apply the "compelling interest" test established by the Supreme Court in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 10 L. Ed. 2d 965, 83 S. Ct. 1790 (1963), and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 32 L. Ed. 2d 15, 92 S. Ct. 1526 (1972). See 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb(b) (stating that the purpose of RFRA is to "restore the compelling interest test" established in Sherbert and Yoder). Congress enacted RFRA to overrule statutorily the Court's decision in Employment Division, Dept. of Human Resources v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 108 L. Ed. 2d 876, 110 S. Ct. 1595 (1990), which, like the Third Circuit's ruling in St. Claire, applied a reasonableness standard to a free exercise challenge. RFRA provides:

 
(a) In general
 
Government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except as provided in subsection (b) of this section.
 
(b) Exception
 
(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. § 2000bb-1. *fn2"

 The broad language of the Act, together with its legislative history, make clear that it applies to free exercise challenges to prison regulations. See S. Rep. No. 103-111, 103d Cong., 1st Sess. (1993) ("The committee concludes the first amendment doctrine is sufficiently sensitive to the demands of prison management that a special exemption for prison free exercise claims under the act is unnecessary."). See also Brown-El v. Harris, 26 F.3d 68 (8th Cir. 1994) (applying RFRA to prison officials); Campos v. Coughlin, 854 F. Supp. 194 (S.D.N.Y. 1994) (same); Allah v. Menei, 844 F. Supp. 1056, 1063 (E.D. Pa. 1994) (same); Lawson v. Dugger, 844 F. Supp. 1538 (S. D. Fla. 1994) (same).

 Under the test established by RFRA, the plaintiff bears the initial burden of establishing that a rule of general applicability constitutes a "substantial burden" on his or her free exercise of religion. Once this threshold has been satisfied, the defendant officials then bear the burden of establishing that the two elements of the compelling interest test are met. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(b) (stating that the government can substantially burden free exercise only if it "demonstrates" that it employs the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest); 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-2(3) (defining "demonstrates" as "meets the burdens of going forward with the evidence and of persuasion"). The government satisfies its burden if it establishes ...


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