Court: Inmate can sue state for being forced to work religious holiday

A federal appeals court said an inmate in Arizona’s Eyman prison could press his claim that prison officials violated his First Amendment rights by forcing him to work in the prison’s kitchen on a religious holiday. (Photo by Tim Evanson/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court ruled Friday that an Arizona inmate can sue prison officials who he said violated his Christian beliefs by forcing him to work on a religious holiday.

Michael Fuqua said that being scheduled to work in the kitchen of the Arizona State Prison Complex-Eyman on the Feast of Trumpets forced him “to choose between my God’s laws and (prison) rules,” in violation of his First Amendment rights.

A lower court ruled for the Department of Corrections, saying that Fuqua had not exhausted his administrative appeals before filing suit. But a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, saying Fuqua had done all that was required of him before going to court.

“Fuqua completed every step of the disciplinary appeal process and repeatedly voiced his need for religious accommodation,” said the ruling by Circuit Judge Morgan Christen. “There was nothing ambiguous about Fuqua’s request; defendants were clearly on notice of the relief he sought.”

Calls seeking comment on the case from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and from the Stanford University Religious Liberty Clinic, which pressed Fuqua’s appeal, were not immediately returned Friday.

But John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, which was not involved in the case, said it “appears to be a situation where the state has created procedural barriers for asserting claims involving constitutional rights.”

“A prisoner should be able to go to court to assert his fundamental rights if prison authorities have had a chance to review his claim and have rejected it,” Whitehead, a constitutional attorney said in an emailed statement. “A prisoner should not have to repeatedly present the claim to prison officials simply because there is an additional administrative review process.”

The case began on Sept. 21, 2014, when Fuqua, who describes himself as a devout Christian, was reassigned to work in the kitchen at Eyman.

That same day, he submitted a letter to the corrections officer in charge of work assignments saying his faith requires that he obey all biblical laws, including not working on seventh-day Sabbaths on Saturdays and all eight High Sabbaths. Those include the Feast of Trumpets, which fell on Sept. 24.

Fuqua offered to make up for any religious time off by working extra shifts, “even more than five days a week.” He said he “wanted to work” and repeatedly tried to make his case to prison officials, but was rebuffed each time.

One kitchen manager told Fuqua to “do what you have to do” but warned that he “will not have a job here” if he missed his shift. When Fuqua refused to work on Sept. 24, he was taken back to his cell, cited for refusing an assignment and suspended from work, according to court documents.

Fuqua completed every one of several steps of the department’s appeals process for the disciplinary punishment he received, citing his religious claims, but was denied at each stage. He then sued in federal district court, alleging violations of his due process as well as his religious liberties.

The department argued that Fuqua should also have pressed a separate grievance claim, and a district court judge agreed on the grounds that the two letters Fuqua had sent to prison officials did not fulfill the process to request time off.

The court separately rejected Fuqua’s due process claim and dismissed some defendants in the case.

But the appeals court Friday pointed to the quick turnaround time between Fuqua’s assignment and the Feast of the Trumpets and said he did all he could to inform officials of the upcoming religious holiday. It said the department’s expectation that he pursues a grievance claim while also pursuing a disciplinary appeal was unreasonable.

It reversed the lower court on the First Amendment claim but upheld the due process and defendant-dismisssal rulings, before sending the case back to consider Fuqua’s religious liberties arguments.