On November 24, 1993, inmates who adhered to Native American religion filed this lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. The plaintiffs challenged the Alabama Department of Correction's (DOC) policies restricting Native American religious practices, including religious objects, ceremonial grounds, hair length, and sweat lodge ceremonies. The plaintiffs alleged that their First Amendment rights and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act were violated by the DOC's policies.
Initially, the parties engaged in extensive discovery and settlement negotiations. The parties reached a stipulation in 1998 encompassing all of the plaintiffs’ claims other than the sweat-lodge claim and the hair-length claim. The DOC agreed to comply with new policies regarding ceremonial days, the ceremonial grounds, medicine bags, feathers, moccasins, prayer pipes, drums, and other religious items. In addition, the DOC agreed to provide training for correctional officers on inspection procedures and procedures for allowing inmates to retain their religious items upon transfer.
On September 10, 1999, Magistrate Judge Charles S. Coody issued a recommendation to approve the parties’ stipulation. The magistrate judge issued a separate recommendation regarding the sweat-lodge and hair-length claims and recommended the district court find in favor of the DOC on those claims. On June 12, 2000, the district court adopted both recommendations. The court retained jurisdiction over the matter for one year, while the DOC changed their policies and complied with the stipulation. The plaintiffs appealed the order as far as it entered judgment in favor of the DOC on the sweat-lodge and hair-length claims.
Meanwhile, in October 2000, a Muslim inmate filed a pro se “writ of mandamus” alleging that Muslim inmates were also being discriminated against. The district court treated the pleading as petition for intervention and denied the petition on October 31, 2000. The court stated the inmate could file a separate lawsuit in the Northern District of Alabama where his prison was located.
While the case was on appeal before the Eleventh Circuit, Congress responded to the Supreme Court's partial invalidation of the RFRA (in the City of Boerne
case) by enacting the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Therefore, on June 12, 2001, the Eleventh Circuit remanded the case to allow the plaintiffs to amend their complaint.
On October 1, 2001, the district court granted the plaintiffs' motion to amend their complaint to include claims under RLUIPA, which they did on October 11, 2001. The parties engaged in a brief period of additional discovery.
On March 14, 2003, Magistrate Judge again recommended a grant of summary judgment on the hair-length claim, but denied summary judgment on the sweat-lodge claim. Accordingly, on September 29, 2003, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on their hair-length restriction claim. The plaintiffs appealed.
In December 2004, the DOC changed its policy and to permit inmates who declare Native American spirituality as their religion to participate in sweat lodge ceremonies four times a year. As a result, on September 14, 2006, the district court dismissed the sweat-lodge claims—the plaintiffs’ last remaining claim—as moot. It was undisputed that, since December 2004, sweat lodge ceremonies had been held repeatedly pursuant to the new policy. 2006 WL 2642388 (M.D.Ala., Sep. 14, 2006). The plaintiffs also appealed this order.
As an aside, five prisoners filed a motion for injunctive relief and contempt in 2007 because when they were transferred out of Alabama to a Louisiana prison, Louisiana did not allow them to practice their Native American religion. The magistrate judge recommended that their motion be transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, and the district court adopted that recommendation on April 6, 2007. 2007 WL 1063524 (M.D.Ala., Apr. 06, 2007).
Also, in 2007, an Alabama inmate tried to intervene in the case requesting an emergency restraining order. However, on October 5, 2007, the district court denied the motion because the case was closed according to the September 13, 2006, order dismissing the plaintiffs’ final claim. 2007 WL 2926205 (M.D.Ala., Oct. 05, 2007). But the case did not stay closed.
On October 19, 2007, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the sweat-lodge claims, but reversed the district court’s dismissal of the hair-length claims. The Eleventh Circuit held, per curiam, that 1) the inmate's sweat-lodge claims were moot; 2) the inmates were not entitled to monetary relief on their sweat-lodge claims; and 3) there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the DOC's total ban on long hair was the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interests of security, discipline, hygiene, and safety, which precluded summary judgment. The Court noted that the evidentiary record relating to the hair-length claims is over ten years old and that in the intervening time, prison staffing and administration, prison safety and security, and the prison population in Alabama had changed. Therefore, the Eleventh Circuit vacated the district court's order and remanded the case to the district court for a full evidentiary hearing and bench trial, following which the district court would make detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law. 251 F. App'x 665 (11th Cir. 2007).
On remand, Magistrate Judge Coody held an evidentiary hearing and a bench trial. Afterward, Magistrate Judge recommended judgment in favor of the DOC on the hair-length claims on July 11, 2011. 2011 WL 7477105 (M.D.Ala., July 11, 2011). On March 8, 2012, the district court adopted the magistrate judge's recommendations over the plaintiffs' objections. 2012 WL 777274 (M.D. Ala. Mar. 8, 2012). Final judgment was entered in favor of the DOC. The plaintiffs appealed, but the Eleventh Circuit affirmed on July 26, 2013. 723 F.3d 1275 (11th Cir. 2013). The plaintiffs filed a petition for certiorari and the Supreme Court granted certiorari. On January 26, 2015, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment and remanded the case for further consideration in light of Holt v. Hobbs. 135 S. Ct. 1173 (2015).
On remand, the Eleventh Circuit considered the case in light of Holt v. Hobbs, but still ended up affirming the district court’s judgment in favor of the defendants on the hair-length claim. The policy furthered compelling interests and that the policy was the least restrict means of furthering those compelling interests. 796 F.3d 1289 (11th Cir. 2015). Again, the plaintiffs petitioned for certiorari. On February 4, 2016, the petition for certiorari was docketed. As of April 9, 2016, the Supreme Court has not yet decided whether or not to grant certiorari. Jessica Kincaid - 04/09/2016