The opinion of the court was delivered by: Catherine C. Blake United States District Judge
Aaron Little French and Corey Lamonde James, self-represented prisoners confined within the North Branch Correctional Institution ("NBCI") of the Maryland Division of Correction, filed civil rights actions pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"),*fn1 complaining that their religious practice has been unreasonably burdened during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when, as observant Muslims, they must fast from sunrise to sunset. French and James claim that defendants Department of Correction, Warden Bobby Shearin, and Chaplain Kevin Lamp (collectively "the DOC") have denied them nutritional religious accommodations, leading to a reduced calorie intake, and have not provided promised ritual feasts marking the end of Ramadan each year. They also complain that Muslims are denied a special religious diet such as is provided to Jewish inmates.*fn2
The DOC has filed Motions to Dismiss, or in the Alternative for Summary Judgment, in each pending case, and they contain identical legal arguments and exhibits, with the exception of one exhibit and differing medical records depending on the plaintiff. French has not responded, but James has filed a response which will be considered adequate to resolve both plaintiffs' claims. After review of the pleadings and applicable law, the court determines that a hearing is unnecessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2011). For the reasons set forth below, the DOC's motions to dismiss, construed as motions for summary judgment, will be granted.
Maryland's religious diversity is evident even in the restrictive prison environment. Indeed, according to the DOC's Religious Services Program Policy and Procedures, Maryland recognizes thirty-three religious denominations and subgroups-from Buddhist and Roman Catholic to Neo-pagan and Rastafarian.(See Defs.' Mot., Ex. B (Stephanie Coates, DOC Director of Religious Services, Declaration ("Coates Decl.")), ECF No. 17-3, Appendix).*fn3
In accommodating the religious practices of its inmates, the DOC takes religious nutritional requirements into account. In fact, the DOC's lacto-ovo dietary plan was developed in part in response to concerns of favoritism raised in a civil rights action filed on behalf of members of the Moorish Science Temple of America, an American religious group identifying itself as part of Islam. (See Defs.' Mot., Ex. C (Williams, former DOC Director of Religious Services, Declaration ("Williams Decl.")), ECF No. 17-4, at ¶ 7); see also Salaam v. Collins, 830 F. Supp. 853 (D. Md. 1993). The plaintiffs in Salaam demanded meat slaughtered in the Islamic tradition, which some Islamic scholars consider an obligatory requirement of faith. The Moorish prisoners argued they were discriminated against because they had one religiously acceptable diet choice (the lacto-ovo diet) while Christians had two (a regular diet or the lacto-ovo diet). During the litigation, the five DOC Muslim chaplains were consulted and affirmed that the lactoovo diet provided was Halal-in compliance with Islamic religious dietary practices. (Williams Decl. at ¶ 7). They also indicated that ritual feasts were provided when institutional safety permits. (Id.). Summary judgment was entered in favor of the DOC defendants, finding no discrimination. Salaam, 830 F. Supp. at 861.
Nevertheless, the DOC took the prisoners' concerns seriously and have continued to offer nutritional accommodations to Muslim inmates. The DOC provides a lacto-ovo menu that meets Islamic religious requirements. (Defs.' Mot., Ex. D (Chaplain Lamp Declaration ("Lamp Decl.")), ECF No. 17-5, at ¶ 5). The DOC does not provide any group with meat slaughtered in accordance with religious dietary laws because the state is unable to afford a diet option for any religious group that includes ritually-slaughtered animals due to cost and practical limitations on prison storage, cooking, and serving capacities. (Coates Decl. at ¶ 7). The DOC also notes that two menus were offered to all prisoners; a lacto-ovo diet (which provides dairy products but no meat or fish) and the regular diet plan, containing meat but no pork or pork products. (Williams Decl. at ¶ 3). These options were designed to remove pork, which is offensive to both Muslim and Jewish prisoners. (Id.). If an inmate chooses to skip a meal for religious fasting, however, the DOC does not promise that they will receive additional calories equal to the skipped meal. (Lamp Decl. ¶ 6).
In developing dietary offerings for its Muslim population, the DOC has consulted with Islamic religious and dietary leaders to ensure that the lacto-ovo diet complies with the requirements of Islamic dietary practice. DOC staff consulted the authoritative body overseeing Islamic food certifications, known as Halal certification, in April of 2011, to ensure that the DOC's Halal diets continued to meet the requirements of Islam. (Coates Decl. at ¶ 6). At that time, Islamic authorities were invited to visit any one of the DOC's facilities to examine the menu and food preparation area to ensure compliance with Islamic dietary practices. (Id.) The visiting authorities found the institution satisfactory. (Id.)
The DOC also provides a declaration from Dr. Brannan Wheeler, Director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies and a history professor at the United States Naval Academy. (See Defs.' Mot., Ex. A ("Wheeler Decl."), ECF No. 17-2). According to Dr. Wheeler, Muslim jurists "carefully distinguish between the 'Sunnah' of the prophet Muhammad (the behaviors he established during his lifetime to be emulated by his followers), and the legal category of 'sunnah' (i.e., customary but non-mandatory) practices that might be derived from the Quran, Sunnah, or other sources." (Wheeler Decl. at ¶ 6). Dr. Wheeler explains that certain forbidden substances may be used for medicinal purposes (i.e., pork-derived insulin is legal for diabetics), (id. ¶ 9); the practice of vegetarianism is permitted and even seen as exemplary, (id. ¶ 10); and certain practices of Islam are not required, or even allowed, for certain social groups, such as prisoners, (id. ¶ 11)). Dr. Wheeler provides a detailed analysis of Muslim dietary practices and notes that dietary rules "are not supposed to be overly restrictive or burdensome upon Muslims" and states that "a relatively small number of general rules . . . , according to Muslim jurists, are not to be followed in all of their specific details to their final logical conclusions. This approach to maintaining a Muslim diet is also the general attitude of the vast majority of practicing Muslims today." (Id. ¶ 12). Thus, foods containing small quantities of pork or pork-by-products, cheese, butter fat, sour cream, whey, glycerin, and lecithin are permitted, because "Islamic law does not prescribe this attention to detail . . . [and] specifically provides allowances for the consumption of foods technically not allowed . . . Muslim jurists do not expect Muslims to examine in minute detail all of the ingredients and the source of the ingredients included in their food and drink." (Id. at p. 17-19).
Stephanie Coates, Director of Religious Services for the DOC, states that, in addition to the lacto-ovo meal, Muslims are also provided one celebratory meal each year, usually for the observance of the holiday of Eid-al-Fitr, the ritual breaking of the Ramadan fast. (Id. ¶ 8). During the month of Ramadan, Muslims receive daily religious services and are permitted early morning meals and to fast during daylight hours. (Id.). They are also permitted to attend late meals or are provided "fasting bags" to consume in their cells after dark. (Id.). Muslim inmates are permitted Islamic clothing, prayer rugs and reading materials as well as other religious property. (Id.). Muslim chaplains are assigned to each region of the state. (Id.). If a particular facility lacks a Muslim chaplain, the administration may contact the regional chaplain for assistance. (Id.). According to Coates, it is the policy of the DOC to allow Muslim inmates the opportunity to exercise their religious beliefs to the fullest extent possible consistent with security and budgetary constraints. (Id.).
Chaplain Lamp attests that NBCI inmates received an Eid al-Fitr feast in 2009 and 2010. (Lamp Decl. at ¶ 3). In 2011, however, NBCI went on lockdown in late August for more than a week, during which all the inmates were locked within their tiers and received meals in their cells. (Id. ¶ 4). Ramadan ended during the lockdown and it was therefore impossible for the Muslim inmates to gather for the traditional feast. (Id.).After the lockdown, the inmate representative for NBCI's Sunni Muslims was offered the opportunity to have a "makeup" feast at a later date but declined on behalf of the Muslim inmates. (Id.). Lamp also states that NBCI prisoners are provided early morning meals and after sunset meals during Ramadan, (id. ¶ 6), but he admits that they are not provided any additional calories in fasting bags. (Id. ¶ 9).
French and James dispute that inmates have received all of the accommodations cited by the DOC. First, they state that the Eid al-Fitr feast, although promised, has not always been provided to them. Specifically, James alleges that in 2008, when incarcerated at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center ("MCAC"), the traditional group feast marking the end of Ramadan was postponed from September 20, 2008 until October 31, 2008 due to damage in MCAC's kitchen. James was transferred from MCAC to NBCI on October 31, 2008, and did not personally partake in the feast. French and James also claim that meals in 2009 and 2010 designated as feasts were not "special" or different from the meals served the non-Muslim inmates. They also point to the denial of the 2011 feast due to the lockdown.
French and James further claim that their Ramadan fasting is not sufficiently accommodated. First, they state they have never received additional snacks or calories outside of regular mealtimes. Second, they admit that they are provided dinner after sunset, but complain that these meals are often delivered 30 minutes to an hour after sunset, exacerbating the difficulty in fasting. They also complain that they are not given additional calories to make-up for missing lunch during the day. They indicate that the failure to provide them the same number of calories as if they were not fasting adversely impacts their health, and that they lost substantial weight due to the fasting limitations. Their medical records, however, indicate that they have not lost substantial weight or suffered adverse health effects as a result of their fasting during Ramadan. (See Defs.' Mot., Exhibit Medical Records, ECF No. 17-5 (Civil No. CCB-11-3301); ECF No. 17-6 (Civil No. CCB-11-2142)).
French and James have submitted a declaration from Markaz Tunstall, a fellow inmate and their Imam, who states that Sunni Muslim inmates at NCBI have never been provided "fasting bags" to eat at night during their Ramadan fast, never been provided Jumu'ah worship as a group (although they have been provided "splintered" Friday worship), and never been provided "special" food at meals designated as "feasts." (Pls.' Opp., Ex. 2 ("Tunstall Decl."), ECF No. 20-2, at ¶¶ 2, 4-9). Tunstall also disputes that, as the inmates' representative, he "declined" a make-up feast following lockdown in 2011. (Id. ¶¶12-13). Instead, because the dates of the feasts are vital to their religious ...