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KLEMKA v. NICHOLS

October 16, 1996

TINA BROWN KLEMKA, Plaintiff
v.
RICHARD NICHOLS and CITY OF SHAMOKIN, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MCCLURE

 October 16, 1996

 BACKGROUND:

 Plaintiff Tina Brown Klemka (plaintiff or Klemka) brings this section 1983 action *fn1" against Corporal Richard R. Nichols of the Shamokin Police Department and against the City of Shamokin (the City). Plaintiff alleges that she was arrested on September 15, 1993 by Corporal Nichols while attending a memorial service at the Mt. Zion Welsh United Church of Christ on Grant Street in Shamokin, Pennsylvania. The memorial service was being held for plaintiff's two children, Ashley Werkheiser and Donovan Klemka, who died days earlier as a result of injuries sustained in a fire.

 In her complaint, plaintiff alleges that she was seated near the front of the church, engaged in prayer, when Corporal Nichols entered the church and attempted to arrest her on misdemeanor charges for endangering the welfare of children. 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 4304. *fn2" Overhearing a loud disturbance, the Reverend Carl J. Crawford, pastor of the church, allegedly confronted Corporal Nichols and asked the nature of his business at the church. Nichols allegedly stated that he was there to arrest the plaintiff. Reverend Crawford told him not to enter the church. Disregarding that request, Corporal Nichols allegedly pushed his way past the pastor, took plaintiff by the arm, arrested her, and took her to the Shamokin Police Department. She was later taken to the Northumberland County Prison where she was incarcerated until bail was posted.

 Originally, plaintiff asserted: 1) a First Amendment claim against Corporal Nichols (Count I); 2) a First Amendment claim against the City (Count II); 3) a Fourth Amendment claim against Corporal Nichols (Count III); and 4) a Fourth Amendment claim against the City (Count IV). Plaintiff was granted leave to amend and filed an amended complaint adding a claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb.

 Currently before the court is a motion for summary judgment filed by defendants (record document no. 17). For the reasons which follow, defendants' motion will be granted.

 DISCUSSION

 Summary judgment standard

 Summary judgment is appropriate if the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)

 
...The plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. In such a situation, there can be 'no genuine issue as to any material fact,' since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial. The moving party is 'entitled to judgment as a matter of law' because the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof.

 Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986).

 Issues of fact are "'genuine' only if a reasonable jury, considering the evidence presented, could find for the non-moving party." Childers v. Joseph, 842 F.2d 689, 693-94 (3d Cir. 1988), citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986). Material facts are those which will affect the outcome of the trial under governing law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In determining whether an issue of material fact exists, the court must consider all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. White v. Westinghouse Electric Company, 862 F.2d 56, 59 (3d Cir. 1988).

 First amendment and RFRA claims

 Plaintiff asserts that by entering the church and arresting her while the memorial service for her children was in progress, Corporal Nichols violated her right of religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. The First Amendment guarantees the right to worship without governmental interference absent some compelling substantial need for curtailing the same.

 RFRA was Congress' response to the United States Supreme Court's apparent departure in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 108 L. Ed. 2d 876, 110 S. Ct. 1595 (1990) from the long-standing "compelling state interest-least restrictive alternative" standard applied to Free Exercise claims. Smith has been widely interpreted as jettisoning this long-standing test in favor of a standard which required a lesser showing on the part of the government to justify alleged infringements on First Amendment rights. See: Smith, 494 U.S. at 891-907 (O'Connor, J., concurring) and (Blackmun, J., dissenting). *fn3" In Smith, the court upheld the application of an Oregon statute which barred plaintiffs from receiving unemployment compensation benefits from the state because they had violated state criminal statutes by using peyote for religious purposes. Compare: Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 124 L. Ed. 2d 472, 113 S. Ct. 2217 (1993) (In a post-RFRA analysis, the Court invalidated a city ordinance prohibiting the killing of animals in religious rituals, but permitting the killing of animals under nearly any other circumstance, applying a standard other than that applied in Smith.) *fn4"

 RFRA represents Congress' attempt to reinstate the pre-Smith standard as developed and applied in such cases as 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: United States v. Meyers, 1996 WL 506441 at *4 (10th Cir. Sept. 6, 1996). Congress enacted RFRA to guarantee the application of that standard "in all cases where free exercise of religion is substantially burdened" and "to provide a claim or defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government." 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb(b)(1) and (2).

 "RFRA does not merely specify the standard which should be applied in 42 U.S.C. § 1983 cases involving governmental actions and/or policies which burden the exercise of religious beliefs; rather, RFRA provides "a statutory claim or defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by the government." Rodriguez v. City of Chicago, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 533, 1996 WL 22964 at *4 (N.D.Ill. Jan 12, 1996)

 RFRA provides that:

 
Government may substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person-- (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(b). Consistent with this provision, the courts have held that to prevail under RFRA, a plaintiff must demonstrate

 
that a governmental [action] burdens the adherent's practice of his or her religion...by preventing him or her from engaging in conduct or having a religious experience which the faith mandates. This interference must be more than an inconvenience; the burden must be substantial and an interference with a tenet or belief that is central to religious doctrine.

 Bryant v. Gomez, 46 F.3d 948, 949 (9th Cir. 1994), quoting Graham v. C.I.R., 822 F.2d 844, 850-51 (9th Cir.1987), aff'd sub nom. Hernandez v. Commissioner, 490 U.S. 680, 104 L. Ed. 2d 766, 109 S. Ct. 2136 (1988).

 Government action substantially burdens religious practices only if it significantly inhibits or constrains "conduct or expression that manifests some central tenet" of an individual's beliefs or "meaningfully" curtails the individual's ability to express adherence to his or her faith; or denies an individual reasonable opportunities to engage in those activities that are fundamental to that individual's religion. Werner v. McCotter, 49 F.3d 1476, 1480 (10th Cir. 1995).

 To establish a prima facie case, the plaintiff must demonstrate the existence of these three elements by a preponderance of the evidence. Thiry v. Carlson, 78 F.3d 1491, 1494 (10th Cir. 1996). If plaintiff satisfies this threshold requirement, the burden then shifts to the government to demonstrate that the challenged regulation or governmental action furthers a compelling state interest in the least restrictive manner feasible. Werner, 49 F.3d at 1476, 1480 n. 2 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(b)).

 Defendants challenge the constitutionality of RFRA. We need not and should not resolve that issue here, because it is not essential to our resolution of the pending motion. As a matter of general principle, courts are required to refrain from deciding constitutional issues not essential to the resolution of the case before them. We do note, however, that although commentators have expressed serious doubts about the constitutionality of RFRA, *fn5" the Fifth and Seventh Circuit Courts of Appeal have ruled the Act constitutional under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Sasnett v. Sullivan, 91 F.3d 1018 (7th Cir. 1996) and Flores v. City of Boerne, 73 F.3d 1352 (1996). Cf. Goehring v. Brophy, 94 F.3d 1294, 1996 WL 495165 at *14 (9th Cir. 1996) (Fernandez, concurring) ("I have serious doubts about the constitutionality of Congress's attempt to overrule Smith and to reinstate (or instate) a flawed view of the scope and proper construction of the religion clauses. In this I am not alone.")

 Plaintiff's case

 Defendants do not dispute that the United Church of Christ is an established religion. Although they do dispute the sincerity of plaintiff's religious convictions, we will consider that issue resolved in plaintiff's favor for purposes of deciding the pending motion. This leaves before us only the question of whether plaintiff has ...


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