United States District Court, D. Montana, Helena Division
DONALD W. MOLLOY, District Judge.
Anthony Evans is a state prisoner proceeding pro se. He brings claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, contending Defendants violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by having a "total ban" on storage and purchase privileges at the Religious Activities Center for properly censored Christian Identity religious media and by refusing to allow Christian Identity adherents to have group worship to utilize Christian Identity religious media. He also alleges that the refusal to allow him to engage in group worship is a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"). Magistrate Judge Keith Strong recommends the Court dismiss Evans' Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim. (Doc. 9.) The Court disagrees and finds that because Evans' allegations state a claim, Defendants must make an appearance on these claims.
Evans has not filed objections to Judge Strong's Findings and Recommendations. The Court reviews the findings and recommendations that are not specifically objected to for clear error. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Commodore Bus. Mach., Inc., 656 F.2d 1309, 1313 (9th Cir. 1981). Clear error exists if the Court is left with a "definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." United States v. Syrax, 235 F.3d 422, 427 (9th Cir. 2000). The Court finds clear error with Judge Strong's determination that Evans' Amended Complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
Because the Findings and Recommendation discusses the factual and procedural background, it will not be restated here
I. Pleading Standard
A complaint must allege sufficient factual matter to "state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Plausibility is less than probability, but requires "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant acted unlawfully." Id.
II. Equal Protection
Evans claims Defendants violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by not allowing: (1) the storage of properly censored Christian Identity religious media, (2) the purchase of such materials through the Inmate Welfare Fund, or (3) group worship using these materials, even though similar actions and activities are permitted for other religious groups.
"[T]he Equal Protection Clause entitles each prisoner to a reasonable opportunity of pursuing his faith comparable to the opportunity afforded fellow prisoners who adhere to conventional religious precepts!" Shakur v. Schriro, 514 F.3d 878, 891 (9th Cir. 2008) (quoting Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 322 (1972)). To prove that a regulation has been administered or enforced discriminatorily, a plaintiff must show more than the fact that a benefit was denied to one person and given to another. Id. To establish a claim for Equal Protection, a plaintiff must prove an intent to discriminate. Snowden v. Hughes, 321 U.S. 1, 8 (1944); Wash. v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229, 239 (1976).
Here, accepting the facts alleged in the Amended Complaint as true, Evans has sufficiently alleged unequal treatment and discriminatory intent as to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Evans alleges that Defendants have refused to allow the storage or purchase through the Inmate Welfare Fund of Christian Identity religious media even though they have allowed other religious faiths to do both. He similarly contends that he has not been allowed to engage in group worship even though adherents of other faiths have been allowed to do so. Evans further asserts that the refusal to do so is based on a discriminatory intent, alleging he has been singled out as an adherent of Christian Identity and that Defendant Tom Wilson and Staff Attorney McKenzie McCarthy have stated that Christian Identity is not a legitimate religion. Accepting these facts as true, Evans has made a claim under the Equal Protection Clause that is plausible on its face.
Under RLUIPA, a government may not impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a confined person unless the government establishes that the burden furthers a "compelling governmental interest" and does so by "the least restrictive means." 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a)(1)-(2). In any RLUIPA claim, the Court begins by identifying the "religious exercise" allegedly impinged upon and then asks whether the prison regulation at issue "substantially burdens" that religious exercise. RLLTIPA defines "religious exercise" broadly as to include "any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief." 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-5(7)(A). The Supreme Court has noted that "the exercise of religion' often involves not only the belief and profession but the performance of... physical acts [such as] assembling with other for a worship service [or] participating in sacramental use of bread and wine." Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 720 (2005). A "substantial burden" is a burden that imposes a "significantly great restriction or onus" upon a prisoner's exercise of religion. Warsoldier v. Woodford, 418 F.3d 989, 995 (9th Cir. 2005). Under this two-step test, Evans' RLUIPA claims as they relate to group worship state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
Evans alleges that group worship is a component of his faith and that Defendants have substantially burdened his ability to engage in it. Group worship has been recognized as "religious exercise" and an outright ban on such activity has been found to be a substantial burden. Greene v. Solano Co. Jail, 513 F.3d 982, 988 (9th Cir. 2008); see also Cutter, 544 U.S. at 720. Evans alleges that Defendants denied him the opportunity to group worship on the grounds that he needs five persons and that even when he has shown there are five willing participants in his housing unit, he has ...