Inmate Christopher Grief, in his second amended complaint filed in February 2016 against Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn Warden Herman Quay, alleged violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Grief stated that, while he “does not belong to any mainstream religion,” his beliefs—stemming from “various religions” such as Buddhism but also “from science and science fiction as well as his life experiences”—lead him to find “spiritual guidance from his stuffed animals during meditation.”
Stuffed animals are considered contraband at MDC, and require prior approval from the warden, which, according to Grief, was repeatedly denied by Quay.
Grief was indicted on seven counts related to possessing child pornography in 2014. Federal investigators allege that Grief frequented websites that were known distributors of child pornography, where he sought out specific content from users. Grief entered a guilty plea to a single count of possessing child pornography.
In April 2016, U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen for the Eastern District of New York dismissed with prejudice Grief’s complaint for failure to state a claim. According to Chen, while Grief’s beliefs regarding stuffed animals may be sincere, “they do not, and cannot, demonstrate that these beliefs are religious in nature.”
Quoting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 opinion in Frazee v. Ill. Dept. of Empl. Sec., Chen said Grief’s beliefs fall “within the category of beliefs that are ‘so bizarre, so clearly nonreligious in motivation, as not to be entitled to protection.’”
On Monday, the Second Circuit panel of Chief Judge Robert Katzman and Judges Raymond Lohier Jr. and Christopher Droney disagreed in Grief v. Quay, 16-1651.
In a summary order, the panel said that Chen erred in not determining through fact-finding whether the belief’s professed are religious in nature. The circuit’s precedent in Patrick v. LeFevre allows for a more “subjective definition” that requires an examination of “an individual’s inward attitudes towards a particular belief system” before an RFRA determination can be made.
“Accepting Grief’s allegations as true and construing the complaint in the light most favorable to him, with the special solicitude that we afford to a pro se litigant, we conclude that the district court erred in deciding that Grief’s belief regarding stuffed animals could not plausibly constitute a religious belief, and that the district court therefore erred in dismissing Grief’s RFRA claim at this stage,” the panel stated.
The case was remanded to Chen for further proceedings.
Attorneys for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York represented the government on appeal. A spokesman for the office declined to comment on the panel’s decision.