RFI’s Islam Team Joins Supreme Court Brief Supporting Quaker Prisoners

RFI’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team has joined several religious institutions in a friend of the court brief filed in the Supreme Court in support of the religious liberty of Quaker prisoners. The case is Green Haven Preparative Meeting v. New York State Department of Corrections, No. 21-1027.

For 35 years, volunteer members of the Quaker faith held worship services with incarcerated men at the Green Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in upstate New York. In 2014, following a series of security breaches wholly unrelated to the services, prison officials shut down the services and offered the Quakers a new worship schedule with a drastically shortened period of time for worship and greatly reduced number of outside volunteers.

The Quakers sued the New York State Department of Corrections in federal court under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The suit argues that the truncated new religious service created by prison officials impinged on the rights of the prisoners, as well as those of the outside volunteers. The Quakers then filed for a preliminary injunction, asking the district court to restore the old services while litigation proceeded.

The district court denied the motion for preliminary injunction, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed its decision on several grounds. Because the decision is binding precedent on courts within the Second Circuit, at least two key holdings of the court of appeals carry a great deal of significance for the religious rights of all prisoners and their unincarcerated coreligionists.

First, the court of appeals held that because the incarcerated plaintiffs did not file grievances about the canceled worship services with prison officials, they had failed to meet the administrative exhaustion requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). PLRA, which Congress passed in 1995 with the explicit intent of making it harder for prisoners to sue prison officials, requires inmates to exhaust available administrative remedies as a prerequisite to filing suit. The plaintiffs argued, however, that as a religious institution composed of both incarcerated and unincarcerated members, the Green Haven worship group was not bound by PLRA’s requirements. The court of appeals disagreed and held that when a religious institution composed of both incarcerated and unincarcerated members sues prison officials, its incarcerated members must abide by the exhaustion requirement. RFI believes that this holding is a disturbing infringement of the First Amendment rights of religious institutions.

The court of appeals further held that by severely limiting the length of the Quakers’ meetings, prison officials had not substantially burdened their religious exercise because services of any particular length or at any particular time are not significant to the Quaker faith. This holding is also dangerous, as courts have no business determining what is of significance in the religions of individuals or institutions. 

Following the court of appeals’ dismissal of the lawsuit, the Quakers filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to review the case, and a multi-faith coalition filed a friend of the court brief, also known as an amicus curiae brief, in support of the petition. The amicus brief, which RFI’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team joined, argues, in part:

[T]he lower court decision is premised on the Department of Corrections and the lower court’s unfounded determinations as to what is proper Quaker worship and what it requires. The Authorities and courts determined that a Meeting for Worship with Concern for Business was not necessary and that the Quarterly Meeting with other Quakers present could be compressed from six hours to two hours, notwithstanding extensive evidence from Petitioners that these arbitrary conclusions simply transgressed Quaker religious practice…

The right of religious organizations, rather than governmental agencies or courts, to determine integral practices and beliefs that are worthy of protection is of fundamental importance to the amici.

RFI works to advance religious freedom in culture, politics, and law. Filing or joining amicus curiae briefs is an important facet of that work. For a complete list of amicus briefs in which RFI has been involved, visit this page.