Sovereign citizen’s prison religion suit may be revisited

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An Indiana prisoner and professed sovereign citizen who claimed his religious rights were violated when he was forbidden from fully participating in certain religious services may get another review, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.

The appellate panel remanded Derrick Neely-Bey Tarik-El v. Daniel Conley, et al., 17-2980, while partially affirming a decision that restricted Derrick Neely-Bey Tarik-El’s ability to participate in religious services at the Pendleton Correctional Industrial Facility.

Neely-Bey sued prison officials who prohibited him from fully participating in

 worship services of the Moorish Science Temple of America. He sought damages of $750,000 and an injunction against the officials, who restricted his participation because a Moorish Temple religious leader claimed Neely-Bey had been disruptive during services.

The religious leader also said Neely-Bey’s status as a professed sovereign citizen — which the DOC classifies as a security threat group — precluded him from full participation in services. Prison officials ordered Neely-Bey to not speak at Friday services unless called upon. Neely-Bey claimed, among other things, that DOC officials, through their orders, had become impermissibly entangled in religious doctrine.

The district court granted summary judgment for the prison officials, and the 7th Circuit on Wednesday agreed this was proper as it pertained to Neely-Bey’s complaint for damages and on qualified immunity grounds. But the appellate panel agreed with Neely-Bey’s assertion that the Southern District Court misread his complaint as not clearly seeking injunctive relief, and not just under the Establishment Clause.

“Moreover, the district court should have read Mr. Neely-Bey’s pro se free exercise claim as seeking injunctive relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq. (‘RLUIPA’). Consequently, we must remand so that the district court may consider whether injunctive relief should be granted on the free exercise claim,” Judge Kenneth Ripple wrote for the panel.

But the 7th Circuit cautioned the district court in its 38-page order that it first should confirm that the issues in the case are not now moot, because Neely-Bey no longer is incarcerated at Pendleton. 

“Prior to oral argument, the defendants notified us that Mr. Neely-Bey had been transferred from the CIF to the Westville Correctional Facility. At oral argument, counsel for the defendants suggested that the transfer rendered Mr. Neely-Bey’s claims for injunctive relief moot. However, there is no evidence in the record regarding how Mr. Neely-Bey’s transfer will affect his ability to participate in MSTA worship. Moreover, we do not know the likelihood of Mr. Neely-Bey being transferred back to the CIF,” Ripple noted for the panel.

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