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Baker v. Oregon Department of Corrections

United States District Court, D. Oregon

September 17, 2019

ERNEST BAKER, Plaintiff,
(OREGON DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS) O.D.O.C., and STUART YOUNG, Assistant Administrator of Religious Services, Defendants.


          Mustafa T. Kasubhai, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff, an inmate at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution (EOCI), filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and alleged violations of his right to religious freedom under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Defendants move for summary judgment on grounds that they have accommodated plaintiff's religious requests and he cannot establish a substantial burden on his religious beliefs or practices. For the following reasons, defendants' motion is granted.[1]


         Plaintiff alleges that defendants substantially burdened his religious beliefs - which he initially characterized as “Israelite” - by precluding his participation in special Passover meals and denying him kosher food and other items necessary to the practice of his religion. Compl. at 3 (ECF No. 2). Plaintiff maintains that in doing so, defendant Stuart Young, the Assistant Administrator of Religious Services, held him to a “Rabbinical Standard” of Judaism that is unrelated to plaintiff's beliefs as a “Natzarim Yisraelite” and “Orthodox Sephardic Jew.” Id. at 4-5; see also Pl.'s Resp. to Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. (Pl.'s Resp.) at 5-6 (ECF No. 73); Young Decl. Att. 16 (ECF No. 67).

         The court previously granted summary judgment on several claims based on plaintiff's failure to exhaust his administrative remedies.[2] Remaining are plaintiff's claims that defendants burdened his religious beliefs by: 1) denying special Passover meals; 2) denying or prohibiting religious apparel; and 3) failing to provide adequate kosher food and drink options.[3] To prevail on their motions for summary judgment, defendants must show there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The court must construe the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to plaintiff. Torres v. City of Madera, 648 F.3d 1119, 1123 (9th Cir. 2011).

         A. Standards

         To sustain his First Amendment claim, plaintiff must show that defendants burdened the free exercise of his religion without any justification reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest. See Shakur v. Schiro, 514 F.3d 878, 884 (9th Cir. 2008). To constitute an impermissible burden, the government's conduct must do more than “inconvenience” a religious exercise; it “must have a tendency to coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs or exert substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.” Jones v. Williams, 791 F.3d 1023, 1031-32 (9th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted). An inmate need not “objectively show that a central tenet of his faith is burdened, ” because it is the “sincerity of his belief rather than its centrality to his faith that is relevant to the free exercise inquiry.” Shakur, 514 F.3d at 884. At the same time, the asserted belief must be “sincerely held” and “rooted in religious belief” rather than secular or philosophical concerns. Malik v. Brown, 16 F.3d 330, 333 (9th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted).

         RLUIPA similarly prohibits prison officials from infringing on a prisoner's religious beliefs or practices. See Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 721 (2005) (“RLUIPA thus protects institutionalized persons who are unable freely to attend to their religious needs and are therefore dependent on the government's permission and accommodation for exercise of their religion.”). To establish a RLUIPA claim, plaintiff must show that defendants imposed “a substantial burden on [his] religious exercise.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc-1(a), 2000cc-2(b); Greene v. Solano Cnty. Jail, 513 F.3d 982, 988 (9th Cir. 2013) (finding that a prohibition against a religious exercise may constitute a substantial burden). If plaintiff makes this showing, the burden then shifts to defendants to prove that the burden imposed “serves a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of achieving that interest.” Shakur, 514 F.3d at 889; 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc-1(a), 2000cc-2(b).

         B. Analysis

         As the court held previously, defendants are entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff's claims for money damages under RLUIPA. See ECF No. 38 at 11; see also Wood v. Yordy, 753 F.3d 899, 904 (9th Cir. 2014) (finding that “there is nothing in the language or structure of RLUIPA to suggest that Congress contemplated liability of government employees in an individual capacity”); Alvarez v. Hill, 667 F.3d 1061, 1063 (9th Cir. 2012) (noting that “money damages under RLUIPA are not available against states because of their sovereign immunity”); Holley v. Cal. Dep't of Corr., 599 F.3d 1108, 1114 (9th Cir. 2010) (holding that “the Eleventh Amendment bars Holley's suit for official-capacity damages under RLUIPA”).

         The Eleventh Amendment similarly bars § 1983 claims for money damages against ODOC or Young in his official capacity. Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 65-66, 71 (1989). Thus, plaintiff may obtain only injunctive relief against the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) or money damages against Young in his individual capacity.

         1. Passover Meals

         Plaintiff alleges that beginning in 2016, ODOC and Young prohibited him from receiving special Passover meals served to Jewish inmates.[4] Plaintiff maintains that, while he does not subscribe to “Rabbinical” standards of Judaism, he nonetheless “follows strict ‘Orthodox' Jewish standards” and is entitled to receive the same Passover meals. Pl.'s Resp. at 6.

         On January 26, 2016, plaintiff received the following memorandum:

The ODOC process has changed for who is allowed to receive Kosher Passover Meals. According to our Administration in Salem, only those who are of Jewish faith will receive the Kosher 8 days of Passover meals.
Your request [for Passover meals] will be accommodated in the following way this year.
You will continue to receive your regular Kosher diet meals. You will also be given Matzo to supplement your dietary needs during this time.

Young Decl. Att. 2 at 65.

         On January 27, 2016, plaintiff submitted a kyte to his chaplain expressing concern that only inmates of Jewish faith would receive the special Passover meals. Id. ¶ 40 & Att. 15. Although plaintiff had previously self-identified as being Messianic, he told the chaplain he was an “Orthodox Jew” and requested the special Passover meals. Id.

         On February 8, 2016, plaintiff provided a “DNA chart” and asserted that it established his “Sephardic Jewish bloodline” as an “Orthodox Sephardic Jew.” Id. ¶ 41 & Att. 16.

         On February 19, 2016, Young advised plaintiff that Jewish lineage is confirmed when a person's mother is Jewish and asked plaintiff to provide his mother's name, contact information, and her synagogue so that ODOC could confirm his claim. Young Decl. ¶ 43 & Att. 17. Young further stated, “A review of your Religious Services participation records show[s] you are participating in Torahmen which is a Messianic religious service.” Id. Att. 17. Young informed plaintiff that ODOC had consulted with Messianic Rabbis concerning the Eight Days of Passover, and they advised “that a vegetable/bean meal prepared in a kosher manner with matzo, served on a paper tray with plastic utensils was acceptable based on Messianic tenets of faith from the Torah.” Id. Young advised plaintiff that the special Passover meals were “designed for strict adherence to a Jewish dietary law in which specific food items are removed from the regular kosher diet” and that the meal he would be provided complied with his Messianic affiliation. Id. ¶ 42 & Att. 17. Young concluded by noting that plaintiff was “not prohibited from observing the Eight Days of Passover meals and a Seder Meal as Messianic.” Id.

         On April 3, 2016, plaintiff again asserted that he was an “Orthodox Jew” rather than a Messianic Jew, while proclaiming that “all Israelites/Jews ARE Messianics.” Young Decl. ¶ 44 & Att. 18. Plaintiff also provided contact information for a synagogue his mother attended in Ashland, Oregon. Id. Rabbi Avrohom Perlstein, an ODOC chaplain, spoke with Rabbi Zweibel of the Ashland synagogue to confirm plaintiff's claim; Rabbi Zweibel stated that he had never heard of plaintiff or his mother. Id. ¶ 45 & Atts. 19, 22.

         On April 19, 2016, Young advised plaintiff that Rabbi Zweibel did not support his claim to Jewish heritage, and plaintiff disputed the rabbi's assertion. Id. ¶ 46-47 & Atts. 20-21.

         In December 2016, plaintiff again raised the issue of Passover meals. Young informed plaintiff that the matter would not be revisited. Id. ¶¶ 49-50 & Atts. 23-24.

         In February 2019, ODOC informed plaintiff that he will receive the same Passover meals served to Jewish inmates unless he asks to be removed from the Passover meals or engages in behaviors - such as ordering non-kosher canteen items - that would make ...

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