5th Circuit Upholds Direct Supervision Requirement For Muslim Inmate Worship Services
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In Brown v. Scott, (5th Cir., July 5, 2019), the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision (56 pages long) written by Judge Owen held that a 1977 consent decree allowing Muslim inmates to gather for worship without direct supervision should be vacated. While Muslim inmates had met with only indirect supervision from 1977 to 2012, that arrangement was terminated after a Jehovah’s Witness inmate successfully sued arguing that the more favorable treatment of Muslim inmates violates the Establishment Clause. The termination of the special treatment for Muslim inmates, however, violated the earlier consent decree. This led prison officials to ask that the earlier decree be vacated under provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act that allow lifting of the injunction if it is no longer needed to correct an ongoing violation of rights.
Muslim inmates argued that requiring direct supervision of their services would impose a substantial burden in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The majority held, however, that it is not prison authorities that have imposed a substantial burden, but instead it is caused by a lack of Muslim volunteers from outside who will supervise services. The majority also rejected Free Exercise and Establishment Clause arguments.
The district court had concluded that Texas prison regulations favor Catholic, Jewish, Native American and Protestant inmates over Muslim inmates. Judge Owen concluded that this does not create an Establishment Clause violation because in the prison context the more lenient Turner v. Safley test should be applied to Establishment Clause claims.
Judge King joined all of Judge Owen’s opinion except for the Establishment Clause section. She held there was an Establishment Clause violation, but that the 1977 consent decree should be vacated nevertheless because it is broader than necessary to remedy the violation.
Judge Dennis in a separate opinion dissented as to the RLUIPA issue, and would not have reached the Establishment Clause or Free Exercise claims
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