Anthony Wright is a devout Rastafarian serving a life sentence in North Carolina.
Among his many religious tenets, Wright believes that certain Rastafarian holidays must be celebrated with a communal feast.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety has no problem with Wright celebrating these holidays, but it does not want to foot the bill for any special meals, which, according to Wright, must include delicacies like goat, fish, plantains, and wine.
By refusing to pay for the feasts, did the Department “burden” Wright and his religious free exercise? Did it “substantially burden” him? Did it pressure Wright to “modify his behavior,” or force him to “engage in conduct” that violates his beliefs? How far must the state go to accommodate his personal religious beliefs, and when does a subjective belief become just an idiosyncratic preference?
Wright filed a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA),
alleging that the prison’s refusal to pay for the feasts amounted to a substantial burden on his religious exercise.
RLUIPA implements a three-pronged analysis for religious exercise claims by plaintiff-inmates. In pertinent part, the Act states that a government action or rule of general applicability may not (1) “substantially burden” an inmate’s religious exercise unless the action (2) furthers a “compelling governmental interest” (3) in the “least restrictive means.”
RLUIPA includes definitions for many of its statutory terms, such as “religious exercise,” but it fails to define “substantial burden.”
Instead, the principal drafters intended for courts to define “substantial burden” based on the Supreme Court’s religious exercise jurisprudence.
Some lower courts have been more faithful than others when it has come to following that legislative intent, and contrasting methods of statutory interpretation have resulted in a circuit split over the definition of the term.
In 2015, the Supreme Court missed an opportunity to clear up the substantial burden split in Holt v. Hobbs.
Instead of providing a new definition, the Holt Court wrote in dicta that a substantial burden forms when the government forces an adherent to “engage in conduct that seriously violates [their] religious beliefs.”
This simple language was a significant departure from the Supreme Court’s previous substantial burden analysis, and it subsequently deepened the divide between the circuit courts.
Indeed, some courts adopted Holt’s “substantial burden” language as a standalone definition,
while others have ignored the dicta entirely.
Consequently, those circuits that conformed to Holt now employ a substantial burden definition focused on whether a government action has forced an inmate to “engage in conduct,” while the remaining circuits use a definition focused instead on the government’s “pressure” as the relevant statutory injury.
The analytical difference between conduct-focused courts and pressure-focused courts is most significant in the penal context. Pressure-focused courts are analytically equipped to deal with claims in which the government pressures, but comes short of compelling, the plaintiff to violate their religious beliefs.
Conduct-focused courts, by contrast, can conceive of claims only to the extent that the government has already forced the plaintiff into action violative of their religious beliefs.
Since the government maintains near-absolute control over its prisoners, it is uniquely able to pressure a person into violating their beliefs without physically compelling them to do so. In other economic or land-use contexts, the government lacks comparable control. For example, even if the government blocks a group from constructing a church, that group will rarely, if ever, be forced to violate its beliefs—they can always just build the church somewhere else.
This Note attempts to show how a conduct-focused substantial burden definition, similar to the one used in Holt, is inappropriate in the penal context, where inmates are dependent on the government for certain religious accommodations. Part I tracks the development of the Supreme Court’s religious freedom jurisprudence, beginning with burden analysis under the Free Exercise Clause and culminating with the introduction of RLUIPA as the main forum for religious exercise claims in the penal context. Part II analyzes how Holt exacerbated a circuit split under RLUIPA by emphasizing a conduct-focused style of burden analysis. Part II further details how a conduct-focused inquiry spells trouble for institutionalized persons dependent on the government for religious accommodation. Finally, Part III offers a solution for how the Court can resolve this split with a new, penal-specific definition of substantial burden under RLUIPA. In particular, this Note advocates a pressure-focused substantial burden definition that can account for both overly prohibitive government restrictions as well as an inmate’s dependence on the government for religious accommodations.