Vega v. Lantz et al
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION setting forth FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW following a court trial. Signed by Judge Donna F. Martinez on 11/26/13. (Nichols, J.)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF CONNECTICUT
JOE BURGOS VEGA,
THERESA LANTZ ET AL.,
CASE NO. 3:04CV1215(DFM)
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
The plaintiff, a state prisoner, brings this action against
officials of the Connecticut Department of Corrections ("DOC")
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of his rights
under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the
Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
alleges violations of the Religious Land Use and
Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et
Several claims were resolved and defendants dismissed by
dispositive motions and settlement.
(See docs. #95, #188, #223
The remaining defendants are former DOC Commissioner
Theresa Lantz and DOC Director of Religious Services Reverend
Anthony J. Bruno.
The remaining claims are that defendants, in
their official capacities, violated plaintiff's rights by
canceling weekly collective prayer, denying his request to
purchase prayer oils from an outside vendor and denying his
request for circumcision surgery.
Plaintiff has been
represented ably by appointed counsel since November 2006.
In April 2013, the court held a three-day nonjury trial.
Having considering the evidence presented at trial and the
briefing submitted since, the Court concludes that plaintiff has
failed to prove his claims that defendants violated his rights
under the Free Exercise Clause, Equal Protection Clause or
Findings of Fact
Based on the credible testimony, the exhibits and the
entire record developed during trial, and pursuant to Fed. R.
Civ. P. 52(a), the court finds the following facts.
1. Defendant Theresa Lantz is the former Commissioner of
2. Defendant Rev. Anthony Bruno began working in the DOC in
Since 1999, he has been the DOC's Director of Religious
(Tr. 12, 14.)
3. Plaintiff Joe Burgos Vega is a state prisoner and a
He was convicted in 1997 of two counts of assault in
the first degree and one count of kidnapping.
He was sentenced
to 60 years of incarceration.
During the 17
The court cites pages within the trial transcript as "Tr.
years since his January 1996 arrest, plaintiff has been
transferred numerous times within the DOC.
Since 2006 he has
been confined at MacDougall-Walker CI, Garner CI, Corrigan CI,
Northern CI and Cheshire CI, where he has remained since 2009.
4. Plaintiff believes himself to be a Muslim in good
He first took the Islamic oath of faith
He has availed himself of opportunities
for Islamic study and learned to read and write Arabic.
5. Administrative Directive 10.8 ¶ 6 requires that "[t]o
the extent that institutional space, staff and resources permit,
opportunities for collective religious activity shall be made
available on an equitable basis at least once a week, to the
various religious denominations to which inmates designate
Collective religious activity must be "conducted
and supervised by a Department authorized Chaplain or religious
volunteer who professes the same religion as the group gathering
Inmates are not permitted to lead collective
religious activities and "can never exercise any authority over
any other inmate."
(Pl.'s Ex. 2.)
6. Plaintiff believes that Muslims must attend collective
prayer ("Jumu'ah") once a week.
(Tr. 192, 229.)
Jumu'ah may be
conducted within a three-and-a-half hour window after the sun
has reached its zenith on Fridays.
(Trial Tr. 244-45.)
Plaintiff believes that Muslims must not miss Jumu'ah for three
7. When plaintiff was incarcerated at Macdougall-Walker CI
in 2006, collective prayer was provided in so-called expansion
units on a rotating basis to plaintiff and other inmates who
were segregated in small groups for security reasons.
Due to the number of segregated groups, 64 separate
religious services were held at Macdougall-Walker in a single
There were instances in which Muslim
prisoners in the expansion units went three or four weeks
without being offered Jumu'ah.
(Tr. 496, 487.)
Jumu'ahs are provided to the general population at MacdougallWalker every week, and Jumu'ahs are offered to the expansion
units on a rotating basis.
Rev. Bruno is
optimistic that his request to create another chaplain position
at Macdougall-Walker will be approved despite a current hiring
8. At Cheshire CI, where plaintiff is currently
incarcerated, two Jumu'ah services are provided weekly.
On one occasion in 2013, plaintiff voluntarily skipped
Jumu'ah to see a visitor.
9. Currently, there are weeks in which no Jumu'ah is
offered in one of the DOC institutions either because no Islamic
chaplain is available or because of a security lockdown.
61-72, 416, 479, 496.)
in 18 facilities.
There are 28 separate inmate populations
(Pl.'s Ex. 19).
Jumu'ah is provided on a
rotating basis to the general population at two facilities and
weekly to all other general populations.
10. Defendant Rev. Bruno, who supervises the chaplains, has
had ongoing difficulty finding paid Islamic chaplains and Muslim
volunteers to provide weekly Jumu'ah to every separate inmate
population within the DOC.
This task is daunting not only
because chaplains and volunteers must work with a challenging
clientele in a volatile environment but also because most of the
paid positions are part-time, pay little (or nothing, in the
case of volunteers) and require chaplains and volunteers to be
available during the normal workweek.
Chaplains and volunteers
must pass background checks, submit to DOC training and
regulation, and be knowledgeable in Islamic matters.
may hire chaplains only if authorized by the Department of
Administrative Services, which must first obtain authorization
from the Office of Policy and Management.
There is some
In recent years there have been statewide hiring
(Tr. 61-75, 111-122, 428-439, 510-514.)
11. To attract volunteers from any faith group, the DOC
relies heavily on recruitment by its chaplains at their freeworld houses of worship.
Little such recruitment has been
achieved in the Islamic community.
The DOC made two
unsuccessful letter campaigns to regional Islamic centers
(Tr. 149-50; Pl.'s Ex. 17.)
12. In 2007, the number of paid Islamic chaplain hours per
Muslim inmate in the DOC was markedly higher than the hours per
inmate of any other faith group, although volunteer hours were
more plentiful in other faith groups.
In 2012, there was one
full-time Islamic chaplain for every 142 Muslim inmates, which
was more favorable than the chaplain-to-inmate ratio of any
other faith group in the DOC.
13. Most of the DOC's Islamic chaplains have agreed that
each will conduct two Jumu'ahs every Friday.
(Tr. 99-101; Pl.'s
Plaintiff would prefer that each imam lead only one
Jumu'ah because the imam would have time to conduct a longer
service and because he believes it is inappropriate for an imam
to conduct Jumu'ah more than once per week.
14. Besides Jumu'ah, the Islamic chaplains provide
opportunities for Islamic and Arabic study, process inmate
requests and visit inmates of any faith.
Muslim inmates have
access to books and other study materials and may purchase eight
different devotional accessories in the commissary such as
prayer rugs, prayer beads, medals and headwear, more than any
other faith group.
(Tr. 157-159, 419; Pl.'s Ex. 30.)
15. It is common practice for Muslims to apply scented oil
before praying. (Tr. 276-77, 446-48.)
16. Until late 2000, inmates were permitted to obtain oils
from outside vendors with prior written permission from staff
chaplains. (Tr. 28-30.)
The DOC decided to curtail the practice
because it turned chaplains into merchants, because some
prisoners had been buying large quantities to repackage and
merchandise to other prisoners and because strong scents could
mask contraband. (Tr. 33, 132-33.)
Plaintiff's requests for
oils were denied on the basis that oil would soon be available
in the commissary. (Tr. 28-30; Pl.'s Ex. 28.)
17. In April 2001, the DOC approved one religious oil (in
two fragrances) for sale in commissary, taking into
consideration religious and security criteria including strength
of scent, viscosity, flashpoint, toxicity, container fragility,
container size and purity.
(Tr. 164-66, 441-43, 501-04; Pl.'s
The vendor selected by the DOC was supported by an
affidavit of purity from a Muslim imam.
(Def.'s Ex. 509-14.)
In 2007, the DOC formed a committee to solicit and
review bids on religious oil for sale in the commissary.
on the above religious and security criteria, the committee
approved a product distributed by Prime Products, Inc.
vendor supplied an affidavit of purity signed by a Muslim imam
affirming that the product has natural and chemical ingredients
but no animal byproducts or alcohol and is suitable for
devotional use. (Tr. 134-39; Pl.'s Ex. 37.)
Plaintiff believes that the oil available in the
commissary is unsuitable for Islamic devotions because it
He would prefer to purchase oil from Exotic
Fragrances, Inc. and/or other outside vendors endorsed by
Islamic sources that plaintiff trusts.
(Tr. 277, 280.)
Exotic Fragrances catalog indicates that it sells some oils that
are 100 percent natural such as jojoba oil, sesame oil,
grapeseed oil, argan oil and hemp oil.
(Pl.'s Ex. 40.)
is no indication in the catalog that the oils purchased by
plaintiff in 2001 (Arabian Knights, Red Egyptian Musk and Janat
Mawa) and requested by plaintiff in 2006 (Platinum and E.
Superior Musk) are 100 percent natural.
(Pl.'s Ex. 32, 34, 40.)
In 2007, the DOC rejected a bid from Exotic Fragrances because
the vendor refused to disclose ingredients and did not submit a
supporting affidavit of purity.
A DOC imam advised plaintiff that oil is not necessary
to Islamic prayer.
Plaintiff rejects this advice
but believes that if he cannot obtain oils, he should pray
21. Plaintiff believes that it is mandatory for Muslim men
to be circumcised.
He requested circumcision surgery for
religious reasons, not medical reasons.
(Tr. 271, 332.)
22. The DOC denied plaintiff's requests for circumcision
The DOC's contract with its medical provider does not
allow for elective surgery.
Elective surgery would enable
prisoners to alter identifying characteristics.
wealthier prisoners to purchase surgery would sow discord by
emphasizing class distinctions.
Conclusions of Law
Plaintiff claims that defendants' failure to offer weekly
Jumu'ah to all inmates, rejection of his request to obtain oils
from an outside vendor and rejection of his request to be
circumcised violates his constitutional rights under the Free
Exercise clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection
clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and violates his statutory
rights under RLUIPA.2
In his trial memorandum, plaintiff claimed for the first
time that the quality of Jumu'ah services in the DOC is
constitutionally infirm because they are too brief and because
they become tainted when the Islamic prayer leader conducts more
than one service. Because the claim was not timely raised, it
is not before the court.
The court begins with the plaintiff's First Amendment
"Prisoners have long been understood to retain some
measure of the constitutional protection afforded by the First
Amendment's Free Exercise Clause."
Ford v. McGinnis, 352 F.3d
582, 588 (2d Cir. 2003) (citing Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817,
However, "[b]alanced against the constitutional
protections afforded prison inmates, including the right to free
exercise of religion, are the interests of prison officials
charged with complex duties arising from administration of the
Benjamin v. Coughlin, 905 F.2d 571, 574 (2d Cir.
To achieve this balance, a prisoner's free exercise
claims are "judged under a 'reasonableness' test less
restrictive than that ordinarily applied to alleged
infringements of fundamental constitutional rights."
F.3d at 588 (citations omitted).
Under the reasonableness test,
"when a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional
rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to
legitimate penological interests."
78, 89 (1987).
Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S.
In Turner, the Supreme Court supplied four
factors to aid a court in determining the reasonableness of a
particular prison regulation:
First, there must be a valid and rational connection
between the regulation and the legitimate government
interest justifying it. Second, the claimed
infringement is to be evaluated in light of the
prisoners' other available means of exercising the
right. Third, the consequences of requiring
accommodation of the right on prison staff, other
prisoners and the allocation of prison resources
generally should be considered. Finally, the court
should consider whether available, low-cost
alternatives exist that would accommodate the right
without compromising valid penological interests.
Ford, 352 F.3d at 595 (citing Turner, 482 U.S. at 89-91).
The prisoner asserting a free exercise claim bears the
initial burden of establishing that the disputed conduct
infringes on his or her sincerely held religious beliefs.
Salahuddin v. Goord, 467 F.3d 263, 274–75 (2d Cir. 2006).
defendants then bear the relatively limited burden of
identifying the legitimate penological interests that justify
the impinging conduct; the burden remains with the prisoner to
show that these articulated concerns were irrational."
275 (citations and quotation marks omitted).
In this analysis,
courts must give deference to the defendants because "prison
administrators . . . and not the courts, [are] to make the
difficult judgments concerning institutional operations in
situations such as this."
Jones v. N.C. Prisoners' Labor Union,
Inc., 433 U.S. 119, 128 (1977).
The test of whether plaintiff holds sincere religious
beliefs is broadly subjective.
590 (2d Cir. 2003).
Ford v. McGinnis, 352 F.3d 582,
So long as the asserted belief is not "so
bizarre, so clearly nonreligious in motivation, as not to be
entitled to protection," the court's "scrutiny extends only to
whether a claimant sincerely holds a particular belief and
whether the belief is religious in nature."
quotation marks omitted).
Id. (citations and
"The opinions of the [DOC's]
religious authorities cannot trump the plaintiff's sincere and
Id. (quoting Frazee v. Illinois Dept. of
Empl. Sec., 489 U.S. 829, 834 n.2 (1989)).
Here, plaintiff has
carried his initial burden of establishing his sincere beliefs
that weekly Jumu'ah, chemical-free prayer oils and circumcision
are critical to his observance as a practicing Muslim and that
defendant's conduct infringes on those beliefs.
Reasonableness of Regulations
Turning to plaintiff's Jumu'ah claim, it is "wellestablished that prisoners have a constitutional right to
participate in congregate religious services."
Coughlin, 993 F.2d 306, 308 (2d Cir. 1993).
assertion that the DOC has not acted diligently to ensure access
to congregate prayer, the DOC has devoted considerable resources
to providing weekly Jumu'ah to 28 separate inmate populations.
The DOC's policy of canceling Jumu'ahs when staff is unavailable3
is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests
including security, cost and administrative burden.
security justifies the DOC's rejection of plaintiff's
alternative proposal that inmates be permitted to lead prayer.
Security also requires a rigorous screening process for
potential chaplains and volunteers.
Significant resources have
been allocated to recruiting and retaining Islamic prayer
leaders despite turnover, budget constraints and a shortage of
The ratio of Islamic full-time chaplains to Muslim
inmates is higher than the chaplain-to-inmate ratio of any other
faith group in the DOC.
In addition, there are other available
means for Islamic observance such as study sessions, study
materials, private prayer and approved devotional accessories.
Under these circumstances, there is no violation of the Free
See, e.g., O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482
U.S. 342 (1987) (given administrative exigencies and other
opportunities for Islamic observance, prison officials not
required to excuse Muslim inmates from work details that
prevented them from attending Friday collective prayer);
Benjamin v. Coughlin, 905 F.2d 571, 573–74 (2d Cir. 1990)
(failure to provide collective Rastafarian prayer was justified
In addition, Jumu'ah occasionally is canceled due to
unscheduled security lockdowns. Plaintiff does not contest the
reasonableness of this measure.
where defendants' good faith efforts to retain Rastafarian
chaplain were unsuccessful); Persad v. Savage, No. 02cv0336,
2004 WL 1570286, at *7 (W.D.N.Y. May 25, 2004), adopted, 2004 WL
1858140 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 19, 2004) (no free exercise violation
where prison canceled Jumu'ah when regular chaplain was on
vacation and prohibited inmates from leading Jumu'ah).
Likewise, the DOC's decision to deny plaintiff's request to
purchase oil from an outside vendor is reasonably related to
legitimate security interests.
In response to potential hazards
including slipperiness, flammability, toxicity, contrabandmasking odor, fragility of containers and inmate merchandising,
the DOC formed an oils committee to solicit and review bids.
The DOC consulted with its Islamic chaplains and obtained an
affidavit of purity from a third-party imam to ensure that the
selected oil was suitable for Islamic devotions.
approved oil is available in the commissary.
inmates to the commissary oil relieves DOC chaplains from
becoming de facto merchants of devotional accessories.
Plaintiff would prefer to buy oil from a vendor whose bid was
rejected for failure to address the DOC's criteria.
The lack of
the preferred oil has not prevented plaintiff from praying or
taking advantage of other opportunities for religious exercise
available in the DOC.
For these reasons, the restriction does
not violate the Free Exercise Clause.
Nor has the DOC violated plaintiff's right to free exercise
by denying his request for circumcision.
that circumcision is not medically necessary.
preclusion of elective surgeries for prisoners is reasonably
related to legitimate penological interests.
could alter a prisoner's identifying characteristics.
be eminently unreasonable to allocate taxpayer money to elective
surgeries for prisoners, and permitting prisoners with means to
purchase elective surgery would sow discord by emphasizing
Finally, remaining uncircumcised does not
prevent plaintiff from taking advantage of other available means
of religious exercise such as prayer and study.
The court turns next to plaintiff's claim of religious
To prove an equal protection violation, a
plaintiff "must demonstrate that he was treated differently than
others similarly situated as a result of the intentional or
129 (2d Cir. 2005).
Phillips v. Girdich, 408 F.3d 124,
The Second Circuit has determined that the
Turner reasonableness standard applies to equal protection
claims involving prisoner religious exercise.
See Benjamin v.
Coughlin, 905 F.2d 571, 575 (2d Cir. 1990) (citing Turner v.
Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89-90 (1987)).
Thus, even if a plaintiff
can demonstrate that two groups are similarly situated,
different treatment might still be warranted if the state can
demonstrate that the distinctions are "reasonably related to
legitimate penological interests."
Id. at 574.
Here, there is a paucity of evidence as to differences in
the DOC's treatment of similarly situated groups.
does not indicate the frequency with which the DOC cancels
collective prayer of other faith groups, permits elective
surgery or permits non-Muslim inmates to purchase religious
accessories from outside vendors in lieu of the accessories
approved for sale in the commissary.
The record does reveal
that beginning in 2001, more Islamic accessories were available
for sale in the commissary than those of any other faith group.
When calculated in 2006 and 2012, the ratio of Islamic full-time
chaplains to Muslim inmates was more favorable than the
chaplain-to-inmate ratio of any other faith group in the DOC.
In light of the foregoing, plaintiff has not proved religious
The analysis of plaintiff's claims under RLUIPA is more
rigorous than the reasonableness analysis that applies to
plaintiff's constitutional claims.
Redd v. Wright, 597 F.3d
532, 537 n.3 (2d Cir. 2010).
RLUIPA provides in relevant part
No government shall impose a substantial burden on the
religious exercise of a person residing in or confined
to an institution . . . even if the burden results
from a rule of general applicability, unless the
government demonstrates that imposition of the burden
on that person ‒
(1) is in furtherance of a compelling
governmental interest; and
(2) is the least restrictive means of furthering
that compelling governmental interest.
42 U.S.C. § 2000cc–1(a).
Despite this heightened protection,
RLUIPA does not "elevate accommodation of religious observances
over an institution's need to maintain order and safety."
Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 722 (2005).
Courts apply the
standard with "due deference to the experience and expertise of
prison and jail administrators in establishing necessary
regulations and procedures to maintain good order, security and
discipline, consistent with consideration of costs and limited
Id. at 723 (citation and quotation marks omitted).
A substantial burden is one that places "substantial
pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate
Singh v. Goord, 520 F. Supp. 2d 487, 498
(S.D.N.Y. 2007) (citing Jolly v. Coughlin, 76 F.3d 468, 477 (2d
The relevant question is whether the particular
activity is "considered central or important" to the plaintiff's
religious practice, not whether it is mandated by his religion.
Ford v. McGinnis, 352 F.3d 582, 593-94 (2d Cir. 2003); 42 U.S.C.
§ 2000cc–5(7)(A) ("The term 'religious exercise' includes any
exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central
to, a system of religious belief.").4
The test presupposes that
there will be cases in which a belief or practice is so
peripheral to the plaintiff's religion that any burden would be
Ford, 352 F.3d at 593.
Here, plaintiff's willingness to use oils of unknown origin
demonstrates that the use of chemical-free oil is not central or
important to his religious exercise.
Plaintiff requests oils
from Exotic Fragrances, Inc. or other outside vendors with no
assurance that the oils are chemical-free.
In fact, Exotic
Fragrances refused to disclose its ingredients to the DOC.
Despite the lack of his preferred oil, plaintiff believes that
his prayer is efficacious.
But see Pugh v. Goord, 571 F. Supp. 2d 477, 504-505
(S.D.N.Y. 2008) ("In order to establish that a plaintiff's
exercise was substantially burdened [under RLUIPA], a plaintiff
must demonstrate that the government's action pressures him to
commit an act forbidden by his religion or prevents him from
engaging in conduct or having a religious experience mandated by
his faith. . . . The interference must be more than an
inconvenience; the burden must be substantial and an
interference with a tenet or belief that is central to religious
doctrine.") (citations and quotation marks omitted).
In contrast, apart from the fact that plaintiff chose to
skip Jumu'ah one Friday, the evidence indicates that Jumu'ah and
circumcision are central to his religious practice.
cancelation of Jumu'ah and denial of plaintiff's request for
circumcision substantially burden his religious exercise.
Least Restrictive Means of Furthering Compelling
Where plaintiff demonstrates that a government practice
substantially burdens his religious exercise, the onus shifts to
the government to demonstrate that the practice is the least
restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest.
Jova v. Smith, 582 F.3d 410, 415 (2d Cir. 2009) (citing 42
U.S.C. § 2000cc-2(b)).
The DOC has met its burden with respect
to cancellations of Jumu'ah and denial of circumcision.
Plaintiff does not contest the occasional need to cancel
Jumu'ah for unscheduled security lockdowns.
As for staffing
issues, the compelling penological interests of security, cost
and administrative burden make some cancelations of Jumu'ah
unavoidable, especially given the narrow three-and-a-half hour
window of time in which Jumu'ah may be accomplished each week.
Security requires the DOC to carefully screen applicants and to
accept only capable and confident Islamic leaders who will not
be intimidated by inmates and the environment.
The DOC has
allocated money to paid Islamic chaplain positions such that the
ratio of Islamic full-time chaplains to Muslim inmates is higher
than the chaplain-to-inmate ratio of any other faith group in
The DOC's Islamic chaplains have not found volunteers
at their free-world houses of worship to the extent achieved by
other faith groups.
The DOC's two letter campaigns directed to
regional Islamic centers failed to produce additional volunteer
Nor is there a less restrictive means other than
cancelation if DOC personnel are unavailable to offer Jumu'ah to
a particular inmate population.
Legitimate security concerns
justify the DOC's prohibition against inmate-led prayer, and
Jumu'ah cannot be rescheduled to a different day or time.
these reasons, and particularly in view of the considerable
resources the DOC has devoted to recruitment and retention of
Islamic chaplains and volunteers, the occasional cancelations of
Jumu'ah do not violate RLUIPA.
Likewise, the DOC's denial of plaintiff's request for
elective circumcision surgery furthers compelling government
Elective surgery could alter a prisoner's
It would be unreasonable to
allocate taxpayer money to elective surgeries for prisoners, and
allowing prisoners with means to purchase elective surgery would
sow discord by emphasizing wealth disparities.
There is no less
restrictive means for plaintiff to exercise his religious desire
The DOC's refusal to provide circumcision
surgery does not violate RLUIPA.
In light of the foregoing, judgment shall enter in favor of
This is not a recommended ruling.
The parties have
consented to trial before a magistrate judge pursuant to 28
U.S.C. 636(c) and Fed. R. Civ. P. 73.
SO ORDERED at Hartford, Connecticut this 26th day of
Donna F. Martinez
United States Magistrate Judge
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