The Tale of Mr. Tetragrammaton

Jehovah v. Clarke, No. 13-7529 (4th Cir. July 22, 2015).

Jesus Emmanuel Jehovah is a Virginia prisoner. Mr. Jehovah has an idiosyncratic take on Christianity—so idiosyncratic, in fact, that he uses a version of the Bible written by himself. Mr. Jehovah alleges that the Virginia Department of Corrections, in a number of different ways, is violating his rights under RLUIPA and the First Amendment. He wants to take communion in his cell, and the prison has refused that request. He wants a prison job that will allow him to observe both the “Old Jewish” and “New Christic” Sabbaths (also commonly known as the “weekend”), and the prison has refused to accommodate him. And he wants cellmates who won’t verbally abuse him for practicing his religion—and, again, the prison has refused to satisfy this request. Mr. Jehovah has also alleged that the prison has been deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs, thus violating the Eighth Amendment.

The district court dismissed almost all of these claims sua sponte under Rule 12(b)(6). The one remaining claim—the RLUIPA claim about communion—was dismissed on summary judgment. The Fourth Circuit now reverses in a well-reasoned opinion.

The district court, says the Fourth Circuit, made two main errors. First, it dismissed the communion claim on summary judgment, reasoning that Mr. Jehovah hadn’t shown that his religious practice was substantially burdened. But the parties hadn’t raised that issue—in fact, the district court’s earlier 12(b)(6) decision suggested that Mr. Jehovah had shown a substantial burden—and the district court didn’t allow Mr. Jehovah a chance to respond on the issue, contrary to what Rule 56 requires. And because Mr. Jehovah has raised triable issues on the other elements of his claim, the district court’s summary judgment is reversed. 

The district court’s other major error was to misidentify the rights at issue in this case. It dismissed Mr. Jehovah’s objection to working on the Sabbath on the ground that prisoners don’t have a right to a job. True enough, but that’s not the issue. Prisoners don’t have a right to a job, but if the prison offers jobs to inmates, it must do so in a way that complies with prisoners’ rights under RLUIPA and the Constitution. Similarly, the district court dismissed Mr. Jehovah’s objection to his cellmates on the ground that prisoners don’t have a right to choose their cellmates based on religious faith. True again, but that misses the point. Prisoners don’t have a right to choose their cellmates, but they do have a right to cellmates who don’t interfere with their rights under RLUIPA and the Constitution. Here, the Fourth Circuit holds that Mr. Jehovah’s allegations about the Sabbath and about his cellmates raise questions of fact under both RLUIPA and the Constitution that shouldn’t have been decided on the pleadings.

The Fourth Circuit also holds that Mr. Jehovah’s Eighth Amendment claim shouldn’t have been dismissed on the pleadings, either. The case is remanded for further factual development.