Commonwealth Court panel: Corrections Dept. didn't violate rights of Nation of Islam members

By Jon Campisi | Apr 1, 2013

A Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court panel has sustained in part, and denied in part

defense preliminary objections that had been filed by state corrections officials named in a class action lawsuit by a prison inmate who alleged various state and federal law violations relating to religious worship services.

Kevin Mobley, an inmate at State Correctional Institution-Fayette, had initiated a class action lawsuit against a handful of officials with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections alleging violations of both the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitution, as well as the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act and the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act.

The complaint alleged that the class members, who belong to the Nation of Islam, have been unconstitutionally and illegally denied separate worship services, and that the defendants “compelled” them to support and attend contradictive, Sunni Muslim services at the prison when Sunni Muslims consider NOI beliefs to not be in line with true Islam.

Mobley alleged that the prison officials “know and understand these principles,” yet they still have “forced hostile religious enemies of the NOI and Sunni Islam groups to combine their religions and commanded religious practices into one broad Islamic group,” the plaintiff’s complaint had asserted.

The defendants subsequently filed preliminary objections to the complaint, contending that the suit should be tossed for a number of reasons, including the assertion that the lack of separate services for NOI inmates does not substantially burden Mobely’s and the others’ exercise of their religious beliefs.

The prison officials also argued that due to time and space limitations, they cannot safely offer faith group recognition for every religious group that desires it.

The defendants noted that courts have recognized such limitations as legitimate reasons for failing to provide separate group worship services for different faiths.

In the three-judge Commonwealth Court panel’s opinion, which was written by President Judge Dan Pellegrini, the appeals judges refused to toss the state and federal constitutional claims, writing that while all of the defense concerns set forth in their preliminary objections are valid penological interests that could justify their position, the reasons cannot be advanced because when considering a demurrer, a court cannot consider matters collateral to a complaint, but must limit itself to matters that appear within.

“An effort to supply facts missing from the objectionable pleading makes the preliminary objection in the nature of a demurrer an impermissible ‘speaking demurrer,’” the panel wrote.

However, the panel did sustain the defendants’ preliminary objections with regard to the plaintiffs’ claims of violations of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act and the state’s Religious Freedom Protection Act.

In sustaining this objection, the panel wrote that it is not the responsibility of the prison system to provide Mobley and the class members with access to others of his specific faith for ceremonies of worship.

“Because it is not the responsibility of the Department of Corrections to provide services for every faith of every inmate in its facilities, and because Mobley has failed to allege any other burden placed on the exercise of his religion, he has failed to plead a violation of the RLUIPA or the Act,” the opinion states.

Joining President Judge Pellegrini in the decision were Commonwealth Court Judges P. Kevin Brobson and Patricia A. McCullough.

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