First Amendment

Jewish inmate doesn't have to show 'substantial burden' on religious beliefs to prevail on free exercise claim, 2nd Circuit says

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“Today, we hold that a prisoner claiming a violation of the right to the free exercise of religion under Section 1983 need not make a showing of a substantial burden,” wrote Judge Steven Menashi of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New York. Image from Shutterstock.

A federal appeals court has ruled that a former inmate who alleged that prison officials cut short his observance of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot doesn't have to show a “substantial burden” on his religious beliefs to prevail on his First Amendment free exercise claim.

In a Nov. 27 decision, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New York ruled for former inmate Jay S. Kravitz, who sued without a lawyer, Law360 reports. Judge Steven Menashi, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, wrote the unanimous opinion.

“Today, we hold that a prisoner claiming a violation of the right to the free exercise of religion under Section 1983 need not make a showing of a substantial burden,” Menashi wrote for the panel.

Instead, an inmate can prove a free exercise violation by showing that a practice is religious in the person’s scheme of beliefs, that the belief is sincerely held, that prison officials infringed on the religious belief, and that the infringement is not reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.

The 2nd Circuit decision “widens a circuit split,” according to Bloomberg Law.

Kravitz was an inmate at the Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, New York, in June 2014, when corrections officers allegedly prevented him from observing the Jewish holiday the first evening and shortened his observance the second evening.

Kravitz alleged that on the first night, the inmates gathered to meet in the dining hall for a prayer and meals. But corrections officers allegedly threw paper bags with peanut butter sandwiches, applesauce, pudding and juice at the inmates. The guards were “laughing and say[ing], here is your kosher meal. You Jew, blah, blah, and F-U,” Kravitz testified in a deposition. The inmates were not even allowed to eat their sandwiches together, Kravitz alleged.

Kravitz wrote a letter of complaint that night. The second night, about 10 inmates were allowed to meet in a dining room, and Kravitz began to lead the prayer service in Hebrew. After about 20 or 30 seconds, Kravitz alleged, a corrections officer stopped the prayer, telling the inmates to “shut the f- - - up and get to eating” because he had things to do.

Kravitz quickly said a blessing, and they began to eat. The corrections officer allegedly interrupted the meal, telling the inmates to “hustle, hustle.”

A federal judge granted summary judgment to the defendants, reasoning that Kravitz couldn’t prevail because he failed to make the threshold showing of a substantial burden. The 2nd Circuit vacated that aspect of the judge’s decision.

A showing of a substantial burden is not required, the appeals court said.

“Rather, because Kravitz has shown a burden on his sincere religious beliefs, he has established a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment,” the appeals court said.

The substantial burden test originated in a 1963 Supreme Court decision in Sherbert v. Verner, which involved a Seventh-day Adventist denied unemployment benefits after she was fired for refusing to work on the Sabbath. The case didn’t specifically create a substantial burden requirement, but subsequent decisions identified it as part of the framework of the case.

The 2nd Circuit has previously applied the substantial burden test in prisoner free exercise claims, despite acknowledging that courts are particularly ill-suited for the task and despite questions about the continuing validity of the test, the appeals court said.

The 2nd Circuit said the test in the inmate’s case is different than the test in lawsuits based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which does require a substantial burden inquiry.

Kravitz told Law360 that he had filed multiple complaints alleging a First Amendment violation, but this is the first one that wasn’t immediately thwarted.

“I was starting to lose faith in God himself,” Kravitz told Law360. “I kept moving along in my soldier way.”

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