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Carter v. Tegels

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

March 15, 2016



WILLIAM M. CONLEY District Judge

In these civil actions, pro se plaintiffs Renardo L. Carter and Kwesi B. Amonoo claim that prison officials at New Lisbon Correctional Institution violated their constitutional rights by preventing them from freely exercising their Muslim religion. Specifically, plaintiffs allege that defendants denied them their right to congregate services in April 2012. Defendants have moved for summary judgment in both cases. Because the defendants’ claims, relevant facts, arguments and applicable legal principles are the same in the two cases captioned above, the court will take up their merits together for the purposes of summary judgment. The court will also grant defendants’ motions in full in both cases because: (1) defendants are entitled to qualified immunity with respect to plaintiffs’ claim under the Free Exercise Clause; and (2) plaintiffs have failed to come forward with sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that defendants either favored certain religions without a legitimate secular reason or arbitrarily treated plaintiffs differently because of their religion.


I. The Parties

During the time relevant to this case, plaintiffs Renardo Carter and Kwesi Amonoo were incarcerated at the New Lisbon Correctional Institution (“NLCI”), where all defendants were then employed by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (“DOC”).[1]Lizzie Tegels was the warden; Tim Thomas was the deputy warden; Karen Sparling was (and remains) the chaplain.

As chaplain, Sparling is generally responsible for administering NLCI’s ministerial programs to meet the spiritual needs of inmates. She arranges for religious worship services, instruction, classes, special activities and individual counseling. Sparling has various resources available to enhance her knowledge about different religions, including DOC’s Religious Practices Advisory Committee (“RPAC”) and other DOC chaplains.

II. Overview of DOC Religious Policies

DOC Division of Adult Institutions (“DAI”) Policy #309.61.01 establishes “umbrella religion groups.” If a prisoner wishes to congregate with other prisoners for religious purposes or possess religious property, he must choose one of the umbrella groups, which include Protestant, Islam, Native American, Catholic, Jewish, Eastern Religions and Pagan. Both Carter and Amonoo designated Islam as their religious preference.

III. Means of Religious Observance Generally Available to Islamic Inmates

Islamic inmates at NLCI may personally exercise their religious beliefs and practices in a variety of ways, including: (1) requesting a religious diet; (2) observing Ramadan; (3) engaging in personal religious study; (3) accessing the collection of Islamic books and publications in NLCI’s chapel library; (4) requesting pastoral visits from an Imam; (5) performing prayers in their living quarters; and (6) requesting to abstain from work or a program on days of religious observance.

As for group activities, NLCI holds Jumu’ah and Taleem services for Islamic inmates when possible. Jumu’ah is an Islamic congregational prayer traditionally held on Fridays and led by a volunteer Imam. Taleem is a religious group study period generally held on a weekly basis. In 2012, Sparling also began a video program for all religious groups on a rotating basis. This program allows each group to watch videos on topics involving their religion once a week for four weeks.

IV. Security Concerns Related to Congregate Religious Services

DAI Policy #309.61.01 requires that religious services be led by an approved volunteer, a DOC chaplain or an approved outside spiritual leader. Since 2001, the policy has specifically provided that “[u]nder no circumstances will inmates be authorized to lead or conduct a Religious Service or Study Group.” (Emphasis added.) Furthermore, the policy mandates that a religious service for a particular umbrella religion group be led “by a qualified person of that particular Umbrella Group Religion.” (Emphasis in original.) For example, as a Protestant chaplain, Sparling cannot lead non-Christian services under the policy.

According to defendants, allowing inmate-led religious services present an unacceptable security risk. In particular, defendants state that prison security is threatened when individual inmates can differentiate themselves as apparent leaders of a group, because they may then exert influence over others and create a power differential. Such power differentials among inmates can create the potential for assault, illegal enterprising, prostitution, drug dealing, gang activity or other unlawful activity. Defendants state that differing opinions on religious inspiration and teachings can also be a source of conflict by themselves.

Additionally, in the defendants’ view, inmate-led services would disrupt the power dynamics in a prison setting and blur the necessary distinction between staff and inmates. Defendants are also concerned that it would foster a group leadership structure alternative to lawful authorities. Because certain groups have been disruptive within supervised chapel programs, even when outside volunteers have been present leading the services, a risk defendants maintain only increases in unsupervised activities.[2]

Although plaintiffs do not dispute defendants’ security concerns, they do dispute whether the policy against inmate-led services is always strictly enforced.[3] Specifically, they aver that Sparling “hand-picked” an inmate, Gerald Wynter, to “lead” a service and prayer during the Eid feast at the conclusion of Ramadan in 2014, although Sparling point out in a reply that she ...

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