Skip to Content

Schnader Wins Third Circuit Appeal in RLUIPA Case

On September 6, 2007 by Schnader in Appellate

In a case of first impression, on April 10, 2007, Edward D. Manchester presented argument before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals concerning the definition of a “substantial burden on religious exercise” for purposes of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). At issue in the case was whether or not the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections substantially burdened an inmate’s religious exercise by limiting the number of books the inmate could keep in his cell to ten, where the inmate’s religion required access to substantially more than ten books. The inmate’s religious books were confiscated by the prison in July of 2000. Since that time, the inmate has fought for the right to possess more than ten books in his cell. In the spring of 2006, the Third Circuit appointed Nancy Winkelman to represent the inmate on his appeal. Ed took the lead in drafting the briefs and argued the case before the Third Circuit.

The issue before the Court of Appeals is whether the prison policy imposing a ten-book limitation on the number of books that a prisoner may possess in his cell is a substantial burden on the prisoner’s religious exercise, and whether the prison has shown that the policy is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest, where the prisoner’s religion requires him to: (1) read four books per day by four different authors; and, (2) teach others about what he has read. The defendants did not dispute either of these requirements of the religion, nor did they contend that religious beliefs of the client, H.W., were not sincerely held.

The defendants argued that the regulation did not substantially burden H.W.’s religious exercise because: (1) he could keep ten books in his cell and trade them, as well as read books in the library; (2) the regulation furthers a compelling government interest in the health, safety and security of both prisoners and prison employees; and, (3) the regulation is the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s interest because H.W. was offered the opportunity to donate his excess books to the prison library, an accommodation that, according to the defendants, was not offered to other prisoners. However, the defendants’ own policies –allowing inmates to keep more than ten books in their cells if so approved for educational purposes; allowing inmates to possess as many personal items as will fit into four storage boxes or their equivalent; and, allowing inmates to possess newspapers and magazines in addition to books severely undermine the validity of their alleged governmental interest in the ten-book limitation. Moreover, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections also has policies that recommend against numerical limits on books, also undermining the defendants’ purported governmental interest.

Prior to the oral argument, the Third Circuit asked counsel to be prepared to discuss what each considered to be the proper legal standard for analyzing RLUIPA violations. The case, which is still pending, may become a crucial decision for future development of RLUIPA jurisprudence.