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Cavin v. Michigan Department of Corrections

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

June 17, 2019

Mario Sentelle Cavin, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Michigan Department of Corrections; David Leach, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:15-cv-14449-Bernard A. Friedman, District Judge.

         ON BRIEF:

          Mario Sentelle Cavin, New Haven, Michigan, pro se.

          John L. Thurber, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellee.

          Before: ROGERS, SUTTON, and READLER, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          SUTTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Mario Cavin is an inmate in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections who practices Wicca. While the Department permits Cavin and other Wiccans to congregate on some holidays, it prevents their group worship on others and limits their use of ritualistic items when alone. Cavin filed this lawsuit to eliminate these restrictions and to seek damages. At summary judgment, the district court ruled against Cavin on the damages claim. After a trial, the district court held that the Department's policy did not substantially burden Cavin's religious exercise under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Because a policy substantially burdens religious exercise when it bars an inmate from worshipping with others and from using ritualistic items, we affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand.

         I.

         The Michigan prisons allow Wiccan inmates to worship as a group for eight major holidays known as Sabbats, which occur periodically throughout the year. Wiccans celebrate other holidays, called Esbats, each lunar month, approximately twelve to thirteen times a year. Cavin wishes to worship with his co-religionists on Esbats. When Cavin observes Esbats by himself in his cell, he faces additional drawbacks. The prison permits Wiccan inmates to use candles and incense only in the prison's chapel, so Cavin cannot access the items that he needs for rituals. And if his cellmate proves unfriendly, Cavin has trouble conducting religious rites.

         Cavin asked the Department of Corrections to allow him and other Wiccans to celebrate Esbats together. Officials denied his request. In response, he filed this lawsuit, requesting injunctive relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (known as RLUIPA to most lawyers). He also sought damages from the Department and Chaplain David Leach, who oversees the Department's religious programming.

         At summary judgment, the court ruled that Eleventh Amendment immunity barred the damages claims against the Department; that Chaplain Leach deserved qualified immunity; and that only Cavin's RLUIPA claim for religious accommodation could proceed.

         After a bench trial, the court rejected Cavin's RLUIPA claim for injunctive relief, concluding that the prison's regulations implicate but do not burden Cavin's exercise of religion.

         II.

         RLUIPA prohibits a State from imposing "a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution" unless the government shows that the burden furthers "a compelling governmental interest" and "is the least restrictive means" of doing so. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a). That makes the statute a three-act play. In Act One, the inmate must demonstrate that he seeks to exercise religion out of a "sincerely held religious belief." See Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853, 862 (2015). In Act Two, he must show that the government substantially burdened that religious ...


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