Inmate's religious freedom allegation over less choir practice thrown out; Dissenting judge says case not frivolous

By Karen Kidd | May 11, 2017

HARRISBURG — A prison inmate's allegations that Pennsylvania Department of Correction officials are infringing on his religious practices were upheld as frivolous by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in a 2-1 ruling handed down May 1.

HARRISBURG —  A prison inmate's allegations that state Department of Correction officials are infringing on his religious practices were upheld as frivolous by the state Commonwealth Court in a 2-1 ruling handed down May 1.

The court upheld a Montgomery County trial court's decision to deny Eugene Myrick's petition to proceed with his complaint.

Judge Joseph M. Cosgrove's dissenting opinion split the three-judge panel's decision in the case, with Judge Robert "Robin" Simpson and Judge Julia K. Hearthway ruling against Myrick, affirming a lower court's ruling that his allegations are frivolous.

Myrick, a 65-year-old Seventh-Day Adventist and inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, filed his case over the prison's conditions Sept. 21 in Pennsylvania Eastern District Court. Myrick previously submitted grievances to prison officials about a reduction in the number of religious choir practices from twice per week to once per week, according to court documents.

Myrick also claimed Rafeal Torres, chaplain program director and named defendant in the case, favored Latin music and services. Myrick particularly complained about Latino ushers who'd replaced others whom he called "Christian ushers."

Myrick's complaints were referred to Ulli Klemm, the state's administrator for religion and volunteer services for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections who also is a named defendant in the case. 

"Appellee Ulli Klemm fully investigated Myrick’s grievances and found no discrimination," the court's decision said. "Klemm advised that the reduction in choir practices was consistent with the time allotted to other religious groups to manage their frequency."

After Klemm completed the investigation, Myrick filed his lawsuit, claiming discrimination against his religion and violation of his due process rights. Myrick has been representing himself during the case.

The trial court ruled Myrick's claims to be frivolous, but Myrick appealed, saying he'd been denied access to the courts when he wasn't allowed to amend his claims.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court decision, according to the ruling for the majority written by Judge Simpson. Myrick misapprehended the trial court’s authority to dismiss his complaint as frivolous, Judge Simpson wrote.

"From our review of the complaint, Myrick does not indicate any connection between the identity of ushers or frequency of choir practice and his ability to worship as a Seventh-day Adventist," Judge Robin Simpson wrote. "Myrick does not articulate how choir or usher status relates to practicing his religion so that a court may discern whether a restriction on choir practice or usher status impaired his religious freedom."

In his dissent, Judge Joseph Cosgrove pointed to the role music plays in the Seventh-Day Adventist faith. 

"As the Sabbath itself is central to SDA theology, music is critical to worship within that theology," Cosgrove wrote. 

"Correctional institutions certainly have legitimate reasons for restricting prisoner activities, and may impose restrictions in any number of circumstances. However, when those restrictions conflict with religious exercise, they must be properly rooted. In the present matter, the question remains whether the restriction imposed on SDA musical activities has such a root."

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