J.D. Candidate, 2017
Valparaiso University School of Law
For the Muslim community, Ramadan is a month-long celebration filled with peace and patience. But in 2010, Michael Thompson’s Ramadan was anything but peaceful. Thompson sued prison officials at the Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin for violating his First Amendment right to freely exercise his religion, and he recently won his appeal before the Seventh Circuit.
Each day during the month of Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink anything between sunrise and sunset. The prison normally accommodates this practice by providing Muslim prisoners with “meal bags”. Each Ramadan meal bag contains two meals: the post-sunset dinner and the next morning’s pre-sunrise breakfast. According to the prison’s policies, a prisoner who eats in the cafeteria during Ramadan forfeits his or her right to receive meal bags for the rest of the month.
On August 11, 2010 – the first day of Ramadan – Thompson began his month-long fast and received his meal bags on time for several weeks. However, on August 21, certain events interrupted their delivery. While on his way back to his cell early that day, Thompson was handed a meal bag from a prison guard. Upon arriving at his cell, Thompson found another meal bag waiting for him. Because Thompson could not leave his cell to return the extra bag, he left one of the bags unopened for a guard to retrieve. However, one prison guard claims to have seen Thompson eating from both meal bags. After accidentally receiving two meal bags in one day, Thompson did not receive a meal bag on August 21 or 22, even though he remained on the list of eligible inmates. In effect, he began to suffer from hunger pains, fatigue, and exhaustion, and thus felt pressured to eat at the cafeteria. However, he knew that if he did, he would give up his meal bag privileges. Sometime during these two days, Thompson also missed one of his morning prayers because he felt so ill. As a result of these events, he was not able to properly observe Ramadan.
Thompson filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the prison officials that he felt were responsible for violating his First Amendment rights. After A magistrate judge granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and Thompson appealed.
Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit vacated the previous judgment and remanded the case back to the lower court to make factual determinations, such as the reason for withholding Thompson’s meal bags and whether or not he remained on the meal bag list. The Court also held that there was enough evidence from which a reasonable jury could rule in favor of Thompson.
In its analysis, the Court considered whether the denial of meal bags placed a substantial burden on Thompson’s free exercise rights. Essentially, the Court defined a “substantial burden” as one that “put[s] a substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.” Using this definition, the Court held that Thompson’s free exercise rights were substantially burdened when he did not receive his meal bags because without them, he was forced to choose between foregoing adequate nutrition or violating a central pillar of his religion. In other words, forcing an inmate to choose between daily nutrition and religious practice is a substantial burden. Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Rovner further reasoned that in addition to not receiving a meal for more than 55 hours, Thompson had no idea whether he would be put back on the Ramadan meal bag list and get regular food. This uncertainty contributed to the pressure on him to go to the cafeteria and left him so anxious that he was unable to practice Ramadan in its entirety.
How should society feel about the religious rights of inmates? From one point of view, many people believe that inmates have forfeited their rights when they are convicted of committing a crime. And some claim that allowing religious freedoms in prisons could open a can of worms where inmates use religious accommodation as an excuse for other, spurious requests. On the other hand, it can be argued that prisoners should be encouraged to practice their religious faith while incarcerated for its intrinsic value. Faith may provide them with a sense of purpose and could also help reintegrate prisoners who will eventually be released back into public communities. Certainly there are legitimate restrictions on the religious rights of prisoners, but as long as that practice does not compromise a prison’s security, inmates should be entitled to freely exercise their constitutional rights.