Seventh Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Inmate’s First Amendment Claims

May 19, 2020

Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a decision of the Central District which granted summary judgment to Kankakee County and County officials for allegedly failing to provide adequate religious services to Muslim inmates.  In Thompson v. Bukowski, Walter Thompson alleged that he had requested Muslim group worship services at Kankakee County’s jail, that Christian volunteers visiting the jail regularly handed out free Bibles and other religious literature to inmates, and that Muslim newspapers had been confiscated during a shakedown of Thompson’s cell.  Thompson sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that his religious rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) were infringed by the County’s customs and practices.

The Seventh Circuit rejected Thompson’s various claims.  As an initial matter, the Court disposed of Thompson’s RLUIPA claim, noting that inmates can only obtain injunctive relief under RLUIPA and that any claim for injunctive relief was mooted when Thompson was transferred out of Kankakee County during the pendency of the lawsuit.  With respect to Thompson’s First Amendment claim, the Court observed that a plaintiff-inmate must show that a jail’s actions substantially burdened the inmate’s ability to practice his religion.  While acknowledging that the jail had been unable to find an imam (a Muslim cleric) to perform religious services at the jail, the Court explained that jail officials are not required to arrange for religious leaders to perform communal religious services and that the absence of an imam at the jail, despite reasonable efforts made by jail officials to find a volunteer imam, did not violate the Free Exercise Clause.  The Court explained that officials were in fact willing to allow Muslim services at the jail and that officials had even taken steps to recruit a volunteer, although these efforts did not ultimately result in an imam coming to the jail.

The Court also held that while prisons and jails cannot discriminate against a particular religion, there was no evidence here that Kankakee County ever turned away anyone who wanted to bring religious materials to Muslim inmates.  The Court also noted that Thompson had his own Quran and used an extra towel which he was given as a prayer rug.  Lastly, the Court noted that the isolated confiscation of religious materials from Thompson’s cell constituted a de minimis infringement and did not otherwise “substantially burden” Thompson’s ability to reasonably practice his Muslim faith throughout his incarceration.  Michael Condon and Jason Rose represented Kankakee County and County officials in the litigation.

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