__ U.S. __ (2016), 14-10186, Ben-Levi v. Brown

Docket Nº:14-10186
Citation:__ U.S. __, 136 S.Ct. 930, 194 L.Ed.2d 231
Opinion Judge:ALITO, JUSTICE
Party Name:Israel Ben-Levi, aka Danny L. Loren, Petitioner v. Betty Brown
Judge Panel:Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan.
Case Date:February 29, 2016
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page __

__ U.S. __ (2016)

136 S.Ct. 930, 194 L.Ed.2d 231, 26 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 24

Israel Ben-Levi, aka Danny L. Loren, Petitioner

v.

Betty Brown

No. 14-10186

United States Supreme Court

February 29, 2016

ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan.

OPINION

Petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied.

DISSENT

[194 L.Ed.2d 232] ALITO, JUSTICE

Petitioner Israel Ben-Levi, a North Carolina inmate, filed a pro se petition challenging a prison policy that prevented him and other Jewish inmates from praying and studying the Torah together. The North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) imposed stringent restrictions on Jewish group meetings that it did not apply to other religious groups. Because BenLevi has provided ample evidence that these restrictions substantially burdened his religious exercise, and because respondent has not identified a legitimate penological interest in treating Jewish inmates more strictly than inmates of other religions, I would grant Ben-Levi's petition for certiorari and summarily reverse the judgment below.

I

Petitioner Ben-Levi is a practicing Jew in the custody of NCDPS. Respondent Betty Brown is NCDPS's Director of Chaplaincy Services. Because this case arises in a summary judgment posture, I view the facts in the light most favorable to Ben-Levi, the nonmoving party. See, e.g., City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, 575 U.S. ___, ___, 135 S.Ct. 1765, 191 L.Ed.2d 856 (2015) (slip op., at 1).

[136 S.Ct. 931] In 2012, while housed in NCDPS's Hoke Correctional Institute (Hoke), Ben-Levi requested permission to meet in a quiet room to pray and study the Torah with two other Jewish prisoners. Doc. No. 1-1; Doc. No. 33, pp. 1-2. 1 After Hoke officials denied his request, Ben-Levi sent a letter to respondent asking if she had " the authority to let the superintendent [at Hoke] approve a quiet place . . . to have a Jewish Bible Study." Doc. No. 1-1, at 4. Ben-Levi later clarified that he was seeking to meet with his fellow Jewish believers for an hour per week. Doc. No. 29, p. 6.

Respondent denied Ben-Levi's request in a July 10, 2012 letter. See Doc. No. 24-1. The letter asserted that a Jewish study group requires a quorum of 10 adult Jews (also referred to as a minyan). Ibid. Ben-Levi's proposed group, however, had only three members. Doc. No. 33, at 1-2. Respondent further explained that the minyan requirement " may be waived in a prison setting only when the service is led by a Rabbi." Doc. No. 24-1. But because " no orthodox Rabbi" was available " to supervise a study group," respondent continued, " no formal authorization can be given even though you say that requirements are relaxed for an orthodox Jewish bible study." Ibid. Respondent warned Ben-Levi that his proposed study group was prohibited and stated that " [n]o further action will be taken on this issue." Ibid.

Respondent based her denial of Ben-Levi's request on established NCDPS policy, which requires either a minyan or the presence of a qualified leader (such as a rabbi) in order for a Jewish study group to take place. Brief in Opposition 11; see Doc. No. 42-2, pp. 5-7. NCDPS instituted this policy after " Respondent Brown personally exchanged emails" with a rabbi and " he advised her regarding the 'requirements for Torah and Talmud study sessions.'" Brief in Opposition 10 (citing Doc. No. 42-2, at 9). " Based on the information provided by [the rabbi], Respondent Brown was of the opinion at all relevant times that NCDPS's requirement of a quorum, Rabbi, or other qualified community volunteer to lead Jewish bible study was in conformity with the 'requirements, practices and tenets of Judaism.'" Brief in Opposition 11 (citing Doc. No. 42-2, at 9).

[194 L.Ed.2d 233] Because NCDPS's policy rests on its understanding of Jewish doctrine, the policy does not apply to other religions. In fact, NCDPS intentionally treats different religions differently based on its perception of the importance of their various tenets. Doc. No. 42-2, at 5. As explained by respondent, " [s]ome faith practices are required of an adherent, while others are not, such that different accommodations are made for dissimilar groups." Ibid. Thus, although other religious groups were allowed to meet without a quorum or an outside volunteer, Jewish groups were not. See Doc. No. 29, at 1; Doc. No. 32, p. 3; Doc. No. 49, p. 2; Doc. No. 54, p. 2. 2

The hurdles imposed on Jewish group meetings are heightened by the paucity of Jews at Hoke and in the surrounding community. " [B]ecause the numbe[r] of declared Judaism followers is small," Doc. No. 42-2, at 10, Ben-Levi could not assemble [136 S.Ct. 932] a quorum of 10 Jews. And because respondent was unable to find a rabbi or other qualified leader to serve the Jewish prisoners at Hoke, see 2014 WL 7239858, *3, n. 2 (EDNC, Dec. 18, 2014), Ben-Levi could not take advantage of the exception to the minyan requirement. As a result, Ben-Levi was completely deprived of the ability to pray or study with other Jewish inmates. Doc. No. 32, at 3.

After respondent denied the request for group Torah study, Ben-Levi filed a pro se complaint under Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Ben-Levi alleged that the denial of his request violated his free exercise rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 114 Stat. 803, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq.

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