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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Free Exercise Clinic Files Amicus Brief Defending Prisoners’ Religious Liberty

On June 15, 2020 the Free Exercise Clinic at Yale Law School and Sidley Austin LLP filed an amicus brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on behalf of the Sikh Coalition, seeking to defend prisoners’ free exercise of religion.

The case, Durell Sims v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, involves a State’s novel interpretation of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) that, if accepted, would have seismic and detrimental effects on religious prisoners — particularly prisoners of minority faiths.

“As the Florida Department of Corrections would have it, prisoners may be barred from judicial review of claims that their religious rights have been violated until they go through any and every process a state purports could remedy the injury — even if the process is purely duplicative, has never been successfully used or explained to prisoners, and is inconsistent with other provisions of state law,” said Kathryn Pogin ’20, a student in the Clinic who coauthored the brief. “Florida’s position would wrap the consciences of believers like Mr. Sims in an intractable tangle of red tape. Rights of conscience may not be trammeled in prison.”

While the Sikh Coalition’s brief argues that Florida’s reading of the PLRA conflicts with controlling precedent on exhaustion from the Supreme Court and the Eleventh Circuit — as well as persuasive precedent from other circuits — it also explains that, by making the case about administrative procedure, Florida “avoid[ed] the real issue: Mr. Sims’s liberty to freely exercise his religion.”

“Mr. Sims’s religious liberty claim was bolstered by Florida’s refusal to engage its merits on appeal,” said Rev. Patrick Reidy, C.S.C. ’21, another coauthor of the brief and student in the Clinic. “America was founded on the conviction, shared by the Sikh community, that all people are ‘endowed by their Creator’ with certain inalienable rights, including the right to practice one’s religion freely. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) protects religious liberty in prisons, where government’s coercive power is most extensive and freedom is limited most dramatically. RLUIPA ensures that freedom of conscience extends to the marginalized, the powerless, and those members of our society whose religious practice lies outside the mainstream.”

Founded in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Sikh Coalition works to counter misconceptions, promote cultural understanding, and advocate for the civil liberties of all people, especially Sikhs. It is the largest Sikh civil-rights organization in the county, providing direct legal services and advocating for legislative change, educating the public about Sikhs and diversity, promoting local community empowerment, and fostering civic engagement among Sikh Americans.

The filing of this brief marks the end of the Free Exercise Clinic’s inaugural semester. The Clinic also represented as amici curiae:

  • The General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, concerning the availability of monetary relief for Muslim plaintiffs alleging that the FBI attempted to coerce them into spying on their religious communities through abuse of the No Fly List (Tanzin v. Tanvir, No. 19-71 (U.S. Supreme Court))
  • The Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and a Chabad community, concerning land-use rights for a Hindu community seeking to host religious celebrations on its property (Spirit of Aloha Temple v. County of Maui, No. 19-16839 (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit))
  • An interfaith coalition of multiple denominations, religious orders, and advocacy organizations, concerning application of New Jersey tax policy to religious practices conducted on property that may not be open to the general public (Christian Mission John 3:16 v. Passaic City, No. 083487 (Supreme Court of New Jersey)).

The Free Exercise Clinic was founded by Professor Kate Stith, Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law at Yale Law School. Visiting Professor Michael Helfand ’07 taught the clinic’s doctrinal seminar. Stith and Visiting Clinical Lecturer in Law Chris Pagliarella ’16 coordinated students’ litigation assignments, where students worked directly with supervising attorneys at Sidley Austin LLP.