Cases & Deals

Death row inmates obtain appellate reversal in religious liberty challenge

Client(s) Randy Haight; Gregory Wilson; Robert Foley; Roger Epperson; and Vincent Stopher

The Sixth Circuit unanimously reversed the grant of summary judgment to prison officials as to two religious-freedom claims by a group of death row inmates in Kentucky, represented by Jones Day. Three of the inmates practice the Native American religion, and sought permission to purchase special foods for an annual religious powwow and to use a sweat lodge for ritual purposes.  After the prison officials denied those requests and the district court denied relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), Jones Day agreed to represent the inmates on appeal.

In a published opinion authored by Judge Sutton, the Sixth Circuit agreed with Jones Day's arguments that (i) the refusal to allow the inmates to purchase traditional foods for their powwow represented a "substantial burden" on their religious exercise that must be justified by a compelling state interest; and (ii) the prison officials had failed to carry their burden to prove that the refusal to authorize any type of ritual "sweat lodge" ceremony satisfied RLUIPA's demanding strict scrutiny test. Accordingly, the court ordered that both claims be remanded for further consideration. As to a separate claim that was asserted by two other inmates, the court agreed with numerous other Circuits that money damages were not available.

Haight et al. v. Thompson et al., No. 13-6005 (6th Cir.)