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Constitutional Law, Free-exercise clause, prison diets

By: WISCONSIN LAW JOURNAL STAFF//September 16, 2011//

Constitutional Law, Free-exercise clause, prison diets

By: WISCONSIN LAW JOURNAL STAFF//September 16, 2011//

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Constitutional Law
Free-exercise clause; prison diets

A prison cannot deny a prisoner’s request for a diet that accommodates his religious beliefs without inquiring into whether the prisoner’s beliefs are sincerely held.

“[T]o decide whether chaplain Sutton has qualified immunity, the district judge must determine whether he reasonably attempted to determine whether Vinning-El has a sincere belief that his religion requires a vegan diet. To put this slightly differently, the judge needs to know whether Sutton used the tenets of Moorish Science to disqualify Vinning- El, or only as a reason to suspect that Vinning-El may have been seeking a vegan diet for personal rather than religious reasons. Qualified immunity poses a question for the court, not a jury. See Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 228 (1991). The district judge must hold a hearing and make whatever findings are required to resolve the qualified-immunity defense. If the judge concludes that Sutton based his decision on the tenets of Moorish Science, rather than his understanding of Vinning-El’s own religious beliefs, then Sutton is not entitled to immunity, and it will be necessary to hold a jury trial to determine whether Vinning-El actually had a sincere religious belief in the necessity of a vegan diet. (Even if Sutton acted for the wrong reason, and thus lacks immunity, Vinning-El cannot prevail unless he establishes that his sincere religious beliefs require a vegan diet.)”

Reversed and Remanded.

10-1681 Vinning-El v. Evans

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, Herndon, J., Easterbrook, J.

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