Prison Cells

Prison officials in Colorado violated a man’s clearly-established constitutional rights if, as alleged, they suspended Native American religious services and the use of tobacco in those ceremonies, the federal appeals court based in Denver ruled on Wednesday.

In doing so, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit rejected the state's argument that a ban on certain religious services for "only" a week did not infringe on the First Amendment.

The Colorado Department of Corrections allowed Charles Williams to practice a Native American religious ceremony that involves tobacco in sweat lodges. But in 2018, officials allegedly confiscated the substance from a prisoner who was not part of the services. Suspecting it came from Williams or his group, the prison reportedly imposed a 30-day ban on the group's use of tobacco.

Williams further alleged in his subsequent lawsuit that the prison initiated a lockdown, which suspended Native American religious services for at least nine days but did not affect Christian or Muslim groups.

A three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit declined to grant qualified immunity to the prison officials, explaining that intentionally denying access to religious services equates to a substantial burden on a prisoner’s First Amendment rights.

“Our case law clearly established the right of prisoners to use objects required by religious doctrine, and a 30-day prohibition could have violated this right,” wrote Judge Robert E. Bacharach in the panel’s opinion.

Samuel Weiss, an attorney for Williams and the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group Rights Behind Bars, said he was "pleased that the Tenth Circuit vindicated the importance of Native American religious services and recognized that their suspension places a substantial burden on Native American practitioners."

Last March, a lower court judge also determined the prison officials should not receive qualified immunity, which is a doctrine that shields government employees from liability unless they violate a clearly-established legal right. For something to be clearly-established, there generally must be a prior court ruling under similar circumstances.

In Williams’s case, U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson referred to a 2012 non-binding decision of the 10th Circuit, McKinley v. Maddox, involving an inmate who sued prison officials for denying him access to offsite religious services, while still allowing him to go offsite for other reasons.

The decision “established that denial of access to services, even temporarily, was a First Amendment violation,” Jackson wrote in rejecting the government’s request to throw out Williams' claim. “Because I find that temporary denial of services was a violation of clearly established law, defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity."

The state appealed Jackson’s order, and the 10th Circuit agreed that the McKinley case was not sufficient grounds to deny qualified immunity. However, the appellate judges cited numerous other decisions about the religious rights of inmates.

Those included a 2014 ruling from now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch finding a Northern Arapaho tribal member should have had access to a sweat lodge, and a 1999 case where prison officials did not provide meals at appropriate times to an inmate during the month of Ramadan.

“If a deprivation of appropriately timed meals for a month constitutes a substantial burden under the First Amendment, a complete ban on religious services for a month would also create a substantial burden,” Bacharach noted in Williams’s case.

Although people who are incarcerated do retain First Amendment rights, like the ability to send and receive mail, facilities can impose restrictions. According to the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, a prisoner's right to exercise sincerely-held religious beliefs must balance against any legitimate interest that prison administrators have in maintaining order or security.

Williams, incarcerated at Buena Vista Correctional Facility in Chaffee County, wrote in his complaint that he did not know the inmate found to be in possession of tobacco, and there was no threat to the prison's security after officials confiscated it.

"Thus, the suspension [of Native American services] was retaliatory only," he claimed, adding that no other faith group's area was as secured as his.

During oral arguments before the 10th Circuit panel in May, the judges considered the importance of government infringement during a high holiday, such as Ramadan, versus infringement during more general religious observance. The Colorado Attorney General's Office had told the court that Williams' allegations involved services that were "only suspended for approximately one week."

But Judge Carolyn B. McHugh did not believe the law distinguished between the the magnitude of any particular religious ceremony.

"I just don’t see anything in the Supreme Court authority to say that’s perfectly fine," she said.

Accordingly, the panel's opinion concluded that the prison officials "unquestionably acted in a way that diminished Mr. Williams’s spiritual experience," not considering how crucial the services were or the particular importance of tobacco to Williams' ceremony.

The Department of Corrections declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

The case is Williams v. Borrego et al.

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