The opinion of the court was delivered by: GAWTHROP
The pro se plaintiffs in this Section 1983 action, Muslim inmates at SCI-Graterford, challenge the constitutionality of a new prison rule prohibiting inmates from leading religious services. Before the adoption of this rule, prisoners could choose a religious leader from the prison population, and this leader would be able to conduct prison services. The new policy, described in the Department of Corrections' Bulletin 819-1, provides that only outside religious leaders may conduct prison religious services, and these outside coordinators must be chosen by prison administrators.
The defendants explain that the new policy was established to prevent possible breaches in security that may arise when inmates attain power over other inmates. The plaintiffs, however, allege that Islam requires them to choose the Imam, their religious leader, from within their congregation; an outside leader would violate this tenet of Islam. Thus, they argue that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the enforcement of this policy. The plaintiffs also observe that inmate civic organizations can continue to pick their leaders from within the prison community. They assert that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits this discrimination between civic and religious groups.
The plaintiffs have moved for a preliminary injunction restricting the enforcement of Bulletin 819-1. The defendants, in turn, have moved to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Upon the following reasoning, I shall deny the motion to dismiss. I shall defer resolution of the motion for a preliminary injunction until after an evidentiary hearing on the motion.
In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action, the factual allegations in the complaint are to be accepted as true. The complaint should be dismissed only if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be consistent with the allegations. Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73, 81 L. Ed. 2d 59, 104 S. Ct. 2229 (1984); D.P. Enterprises v. Bucks County Community College, 725 F.2d 943, 944 (3d Cir. 1984). For the purposes of this motion, all of the plaintiffs' allegations, and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from them, will be regarded as true.
The First Amendment of the Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ." The Free Exercise Clause applies in this case only if the plaintiffs' convictions are grounded in a religious belief, Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 215, 32 L. Ed. 2d 15, 92 S. Ct. 1526 (1972), and if they are sincere, Frazee v. Illinois Department of Employment Security, 489 U.S. 829, 832-33, 103 L. Ed. 2d 914, 109 S. Ct. 1514 (1989). Both determinations involve questions of fact that I must resolve in the plaintiffs' favor. They have alleged that the Islam religion requires them to choose a leader from within the congregation, and that they are devout Muslims. Thus, the Free Exercise Clause applies.
The First Amendment analysis begins with the observation that "prisoners [must] be accorded those rights not fundamentally inconsistent with imprisonment itself or incompatible with the objectives of incarceration." Monmouth County Correctional Institution Inmates v. Lanzaro, 834 F.2d 326, 333 (3d Cir. 1987) (quoting Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 523, 82 L. Ed. 2d 393, 104 S. Ct. 3194 (1984). Thus, the court's task is to balance the plaintiffs' constitutional rights against the difficulty of operating an effective and secure prison system, which inevitably requires the limitation of some significant privileges. Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 407, 104 L. Ed. 2d 459, 109 S. Ct. 1874 (1989); Allah v. Menei, 844 F. Supp. 1056 (E.D. Pa. 1994).
The plaintiffs allege that Bulletin 819-1 restricts their right to the free exercise of religion. The Supreme Court has held that "when a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests." Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89, 96 L. Ed. 2d 64, 107 S. Ct. 2254 (1987). The Turner Court instructed district courts to consider four factual issues when weighing the reasonableness of the prison regulation at issue. First, there must be a valid, rational connection between the prison rule and the legitimate government interest set forth to justify it. Id. at 89-90. The defendants contend that security concerns led to the adoption of the rule. The plaintiffs respond that because there has never been any security breach arising from an inmate religious leader's incitement of other inmates, this justification is disingenuous. They allege that Muslims obey those in authority, and no Imam has ever encouraged inmates to disobey prison rules. The plaintiffs have thus presented a colorable claim that the security considerations mentioned by the defendants to justify the new rule are pretextual. Cf. Howard v. United States, 864 F. Supp. 1019, 1026-27 (D. Colo. 1994) (security concerns cannot justify prohibiting a Satanist from practicing his religion).
Second, where there are alternative means of exercising a right that remains open to other inmates, the court should defer to corrections officials in gauging the validity of the rule. Turner, 482 U.S. at 90. The plaintiffs here assert that Islam requires the selection of an Imam from within the congregation. According to their pleadings, there are no alternative means to their religious expressions, so the prison rule denies them the right to practice their beliefs.
Third, the district court should weigh the impact of the accommodation of the right on prison resources and other inmates. Id. The plaintiffs aver that groups had the right to conduct religious meetings, and for over a decade, these groups could choose their leaders from the prison population. They further contend that this practice did not harm other inmates or compromise prison security. These allegations suggest that the effect of continuing the practice would not adversely affect security or other inmates.