A Wisconsin federal court prematurely dismissed a prisoner’s claim that he’s entitled to an annual religious feast featuring pork because he practices Odinism, a polytheistic religion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has ruled.
The court ruled on December 5 in Derek Kramer v. William Pollard, affirming in part and vacating in part Western District of Wisconsin rulings on the case. It remanded for further proceedings on the religious diet issue.
The court said that a federal trial court had prematurely dismissed Kramer’s religious-diet claim against the defendants, who are current or former Wisconsin Department of Corrections officials. Circuit Judges David Hamilton, Ilana Diamond Rovner and Ann Claire Williams signed the order.
The case concerns events that took place at the Green Bay Correctional Institution in 2007 and 2008.
The state prison system divides religions into seven umbrella groups to provide services. Odinism is included in the Pagan group. Green Bay had no group-worship opportunities specifically for Odinism because there were no qualified, non-inmate volunteers to lead services.
A dispute arose during the Green Bay’s March 2008 Pagan group meeting because Kramer and other Odinist inmates wanted to observe a Wiccan ritual but not participate. Prison officials required attendees to participate or leave the chapel. Kramer later petitioned for Odinist group worship and religious items and an annual feast.
Officials denied Kramer’s requests but did not specifically respond to his request for a feast.
After appealing through the department’s administrative process, Kramer filed a federal lawsuit in April 2010. He claimed prison officials violated the Constitution’s free-exercise, establishment and equal-protection clauses. He sought damages and an injunction under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
The district court found Kramer’s request for an injunction requiring group worship and prayer items moot because he had since been transferred from Green Bay. The lower court also held that Kramer had not exhausted administrative remedies regarding his religious-diet claim.
In addition, the district court found that the defendants were protected by qualified immunity and that any restrictions on Kramer’s ability to practice Odinism were related to the prison’s policy against allowing inmates to lead religious services. It held that Kramer could not succeed on his claims involving religious items because the prison’s underlying denial of group worship was constitutional.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit held that Kramer could not defeat the qualified-immunity defense because he hasn’t proved that the defendants violated a clearly established constitutional or statutory right.
“Kramer can recover damages for a free exercise or equal protection violation only if the defendants’ actions are not reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest,” the court said, citing the 1997 Supreme Court ruling in Turner v. Safley.
The court noted the lack of non-inmate volunteers to lead Odinist services and the prison’s “legitimate security interest in preventing prisoners from assuming any leadership authority over fellow inmates.”
The court continued: “Given the precedents, however, permitting prison administrators to deny group worship where no volunteer or chaplain is readily available to lead services, a reasonable government official would not have known the official was violating clearly established law by refusing Kramer’s requests for Odinist group worship.”
Regarding the religious-diet claim, the court said: “Because the documents attached to Kramer’s complaint do not show that Kramer failed to exhaust his religious-diet grievance, the district court should not have dismissed this claim at the screening stage for failure to exhaust.”
The Wisconsin Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.
Sheri Qualters can be contacted at email@example.com.