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The Seventh Circuit revived a free exercise of religion case in which a Muslim inmate sued his jailers for interfering with his observance of Ramadan by withholding "special meals."
The circuit vacated the lower court's summary judgment in favor of the defendant. According to the court, making a prisoner choose between food and religion is a substantial burden on his free exercise.
Ramadan Behind Bars
Michael L. Thompson, 38, was and still is serving a life sentence in a Wisconsin jail. Thompson, an observant Muslim, sought to fast during the month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, the pious must not eat or drink between sun up and sun down. Thompson had been approved to receive "special meals" between the hours of daylight so that he could consume them during permitted hours.
Allegedly, ten days into Ramadan, there was conflicting accounts of what happened next. Thompson claims that he was arbitrarily precluded from receiving at least one meal. An officer claimed that he stole one meal. Either way, Thompson was without food or drink for 55 hours and was left, during that time, with the choice of breaking his fast and resuming meals in the common cafeteria.
Food or Religion?
Thompson sued the guards under violations of the Free Exercise Clause. At the district level, he lost. The judge said that two days' time without food was a de minimus burden on Thompson's practice and that withholding a meal was justified punishment for his theft. Other theories of law he did not reach. The circuit vacated the district court's ruling.
The circuit highlighted Nelson v. Miller, a 2009 case that stood for rule that government forcing a choice between religion and food was a substantial burden on the inmate's free exercise of his religion -- and applied it vigorously. Here, the circuit found, not only was the wait not de minimus, it was a 55 hour wait with the added anxiety that Thompson faced the possibility of not being admitted back onto the Ramadan list for special meals. Thus, this anxiety, even if it did not interfere with his peace and solitude, was a "substantial burden."