State inmate William Ernest Scott (TDCJ #576705) has filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his civil rights. At the Court's request, Scott has also supplied a more definite statement of his claims. (Docket No. 6). Pending before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Huntsville Unit Chaplain Larry Hart, who argues that Scott fails to demonstrate a valid claim. (Docket No. 19). Scott has filed a response. (Docket No. 22). After reviewing all of the pleadings, the exhibits, and the applicable law, the Court denies summary judgment for reasons set forth below.
Scott is presently incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - Correctional Institutions Division (collectively, "TDCJ"), at the Huntsville Unit. His complaint raises the issue of inadequate religious programming at the Huntsville Unit facility. In particular, Scott claims that he has been denied the opportunity to practice his religious beliefs because of a prison policy that requires the presence of an approved volunteer from the "freeworld" to supervise all group worship activities.
Scott, who describes himself as "a Jehovah's Witness," explains that he and other Jehovah's Witnesses at the Huntsville Unit wish to meet as a group every Saturday to practice their beliefs as required by the Bible.*fn1 Scott complains, however, that Jehovah's Witnesses at the Huntsville Unit facility were denied "religious meetings" of this sort on numerous Saturdays during 2008 and 2009, because a freeworld volunteer was not available.*fn2 As Scott concedes, the TDCJ policy on religious programming requires the availability of security personnel as well as the presence of a TDCJ Chaplain or an approved volunteer to lead all religious services held in the state prison facilities. Scott notes, however, that inmates of the Muslim faith are allowed to meet for two hours on Fridays and two hours on Saturdays with or without a volunteer. Scott asked Unit Chaplain Larry Hart to extend similar privileges to Jehovah's Witnesses at the Huntsville Unit, but Scott's request was denied pursuant to the TDCJ policy that requires the presence of a volunteer.
Scott complains that, by refusing to allow Jehovah's Witnesses to convene for weekly group worship activities without an available volunteer, enforcement of the TDCJ volunteer policy has interfered with the practice or expression of his religious beliefs in violation of the First Amendment. Scott also appears to complain that the volunteer policy has imposed a substantial burden on the practice of his religious beliefs in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (the "RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1. Scott does not seek monetary damages. Instead, he requests injunctive relief in the form of a court order directing prison officials to allow Jehovah's Witnesses to hold "regularly scheduled meeting[s] with or without a volunteer," similar to the privilege extended to Muslim inmates in TDCJ.
Chaplain Hart has filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Scott is not entitled to relief and that his claims fail as a matter of law.*fn3 Scott disagrees. The parties' contentions are discussed further below under the governing standard of review.
The defendant's motion is governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Under this rule, a reviewing court "shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). A fact is "material" if its resolution in favor of one party might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U .S. 242, 248 (1986). An issue is "genuine" if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id.
If the movant demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, then the burden shifts to the non-movant to provide specific facts showing the existence of a genuine issue for trial. See Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587. In deciding a summary judgment motion, the reviewing court must "construe all facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Dillon v. Rogers, 596 F.3d 260, 266 (5th Cir. 2010) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). The plaintiff proceeds pro se in this case. Courts construe pleadings filed by pro se litigants under a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972); Bledsue v. Johnson, 188 F.3d 250, 255 (5th Cir. 1999). Thus, pleadings filed by a pro se litigant are entitled to a liberal construction that affords all reasonable inferences which can be drawn from them. See Haines, 404 U.S. at 521; see also United States v. Pena, 122 F.3d 3, 4 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing Nerren v. Livingston Police Dept., 84 F.3d 469, 473 & n.16 (5th Cir. 1996)).
A. The TDCJ Volunteer Policy
Scott contends that enforcement of the TDCJ volunteer policy at the Huntsville Unit has violated his right to exercise his religious beliefs in violation of the First Amendment and the RLUIPA, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1. The policy, identified as Administrative Directive 07.30 ("AD 07.30"), purports to govern religious programming and "chaplaincy services" in TDCJ. (Docket No. 22, Exhibit). According to Chaplain Hart, who has served as Unit Chaplain at the Huntsville Unit facility for the past eleven years, the policy set forth in AD 07.30 requires all faith groups to meet under the supervision of a TDCJ Chaplain, a TDCJ-approved religious volunteer, and security. (Docket No. 19, Exhibit A, Hart Affidavit). An "approved volunteer," for purposes of this policy, is "a person who provides a service or who participates in volunteer activities on a regular basis, has been approved through the application process, and has completed the volunteer training and orientation." The responsibility for training of religious volunteers at a particular facility belongs to the Unit Chaplain.*fn4
Scott's primary complaint is that Jehovah's Witnesses are treated differently under the policy than inmates of the Muslim faith, who are allowed to meet with or without the presence of an approved volunteer. Chaplain Hart acknowledges that Muslim inmates within the TDCJ population are excused from compliance with the volunteer policy because of a federal court order that was entered on July 20, 1977. Specifically, in Brown v. Beto, H-69-74 (S.D. Tex.), a district court in the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, entered a consent decree that continues to afford Muslim inmates with the opportunity to meet as a group regardless of the availability of a Chaplain or volunteer.*fn5
While he acknowledges that the policy is applied differently for the Muslim faith group, Chaplain Hart insists that there are numerous opportunities for inmates to practice their religious beliefs when an approved volunteer is not available. Chaplain Hart reports that the Huntsville Unit provides religious programming throughout the week for "Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Latter Day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslim, Church of Christ, and Christian Science groups." (Docket No. 19, Exhibit A, Hart Affidavit, at 1). These programs include Spanish-language services for Catholic and Protestant inmates. Chaplain Hart reports that all of the above-referenced religious services are open to all inmates. An inmate does not have to be a designated member of a particular faith group to attend a particular service. In addition, pursuant to TDCJ policy, an inmate may request to meet with an outside minister or spiritual adviser for up to two hours twice a month. Chaplain Hart reports further that many types of religious materials from a variety of sources are available to inmates through the Chaplaincy Library or through the mail.
Chaplain Hart advises that there are currently twenty-three (23) Jehovah's Witnesses among the inmate population at the Huntsville Unit.*fn6 If a volunteer is present, this group is allowed two hours of worship every week from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. on Saturdays. This has not always been the case. Chaplain Hart reports that, when he was first assigned to the Huntsville Unit eleven years ago, Jehovah's Witnesses only met on one Saturday out of the month. Chaplain Hart concedes that Jehovah's Witnesses met sporadically in 2009. Chaplain Hart explains that the lapse in regularly scheduled services occurred because the only approved volunteer (Mr. Thelbert Blume) was experiencing unspecified health problems. There was no alternate volunteer available during that time. As a result, Jehovah's Witnesses were only allowed to meet as a group on twenty-seven (27) Saturdays during 2009. (Docket No. 19, Exhibit C, List of Meetings for Jehovah' s Witnesses).
Chaplain Hart notes that, when a volunteer is unavailable to lead Saturday meetings for the Jehovah's Witnesses, inmates were free to study their Bibles and other religious materials, such as the Watchtower, and to pray in their cells.*fn7 Chaplain Hart reports further that he has secured the services of a second volunteer (Mr. Jeff Syret) from nearby Livingston, Texas. As a result, Chaplain Hart reports that the two ...