This 1996 case is about a Buddhist prisoner (convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison) who claims violations of his First Amendment right to practice his religion while in Michigan prison.

TEMUJIN KENSU, Plaintiff, V. DAVID CASON, JR., et al., Defendants.
Case No. 1:91-CV-300
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN, SOUTHERN DIVISION
1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5468

Decided – March 29, 1996

The Court explains:

While plaintiff’s claims might be succinctly characterized simply as free exercise and retaliation claims, in reality his grievances impact on virtually all aspects of the terms of his confinement. His claims involve the recognition of his religion and the right to individual and corporate practice; the availability of Buddhist books or literature in the prison libraries and visiting rooms; the composition of the Chaplains Advisory Council; shake-downs on visitations; the MDOC policy on assuming religious names; transfers to impede his ability to practice his religion and/or in retaliation for grievances filed in connection with his right to practice his religion; name-calling by prison guards; surveillance of plaintiff and his visitors in prison visiting rooms; prison newspaper publication policies; security reclassifications based upon or in retaliation for his exercise of his religious rights; cell assignments, mock pack-ups of prisoner property; the availability of tallow-free soap and hair conditioner; the composition of religious task forces; the right to sleep on the floor notwithstanding prison count policy; approval of religious vendors; the availability of protein tablets to supplement a meat-free diet; and the availability of an extensive amount of religious items and clothing.

The court notes that:

Plaintiff is also trained in several martial arts. He testified that he has a brown belt in Japanese karate and a black belt in Korean Tae Kwon Do. He admitted that he was referred to as the “Ninja Assassin” in his trial and that he had discussed his interest in the martial arts with various prison guards. Although plaintiff contends he is a pacifist, he testified that there had been at least 15 attacks on him by inmates at various prisons.

And that:

Plaintiff’s complaints about harassment were corroborated by inmates Andrew Trombley, Patrick Brown, Robert Harris and Jeffrey Terry. Mr. Trombley testified that Buddhists were not permitted to pray at meals and they were threatened with a major misconduct by the guards. Mr. Brown testified that Buddhists were called Ginsu knives and Ninja warriors by the guards at Muskegon. He also testified that Buddhists were subjected to general harassment, including mock pack-ups, pat downs, reviews of their identification and shake-downs. Mr. Harris testified that Buddhists were shaken down and harassed by guards when reading in a group. He also contended he had been denied parole three times due to his religion. Mr. Terry testified that Buddhists were called Buttyists by prison guards.

Analysis under RFRA, most of the plaintiff’s claims were denied (including denying claims for better vegetarian food options, protein supplements, soap made without animal products, chopsticks, and extra blanket to sleep on the floor, among others) but the Court did find one violation of his rights:

defendants’ policy, practice or custom of prohibiting all use by plaintiff of a simple altar and incense in his practice of Buddhism is a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq. Because the use of an altar and incense is fundamental or central to the exercise of plaintiff’s religion, and because defendants have failed to show that outright prohibition of such items is the least restrictive means of serving defendants’ legitimate penological objectives, defendants must either allow plaintiff to possess and use an altar and incense in his cell or must offer him the opportunity to use such items regularly in a designated location in the prison facility on terms comparable to those on which members of other religious groups are permitted to participate in religious rituals and ceremonies.

Therefore, as a prevailing party, the plaintiff’s attorney fees were paid. Still most of his complaints were denied.

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