Patrick v. LeFevre

Decision Date25 September 1984
Docket NumberNo. 137,D,137
Citation745 F.2d 153
PartiesVernon PATRICK, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Eugene LeFEVRE, Superintendent of Clinton Correctional Facility; Rev. Doctor Earl B. Moore, Chaplain; and Thomas A. Coughlin, III, Commissioner of New York State Department of Correctional Services, Defendants-Appellees. ocket 83-2382.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

Rosalind S. Lichter, Meyers Tersigni Kaufman Feldman & Gray, New York City, for plaintiff-appellant.

Nancy A. Spiegel, Asst. Atty. Gen., N.Y. State, Albany, N.Y. (Robert Abrams, Atty. Gen. of N.Y., William J. Kogan, Asst. Sol. Gen. of N.Y., Albany, N.Y., of counsel), for defendants-appellees.

Before KAUFMAN, MESKILL and PIERCE, Circuit Judges.

IRVING R. KAUFMAN, Circuit Judge.

From time immemorial, our republic has prided itself on its unwavering commitment to spiritual liberty. Unpopular and unorthodox beliefs forbidden elsewhere have consistently found tolerance and acceptance on our shores. An abiding respect for the unfettered expression of conscience has served as the animating force behind the free exercise clause's coverage. Mindful of these precepts, the judiciary has steadfastly refused to become the arbiter of scriptural interpretation.

But with the advent of the theological revolution, the already acute tension between spiritual liberty and secular intervention has been exacerbated. Religious impulses, once ensconced in a theocentric, transcendental mode, now extend to the imminence of meaning in the natural order. This implosion of conscience tests the resiliency of first amendment doctrine, and places demands of inordinate difficulty on the judiciary as it strives to resolve conflicts with dispatch and fairness. Where claims of personal faith clash with expediency, courts must be particularly circumspect. Indeed, an efficient system callous to the need for vindication of precious liberties denigrates the labors of our founding fathers.

We recognize the judiciary's limited competence in addressing issues that originate in the spiritual realm. Nevertheless, we shall proceed carefully to outline the relevant facts necessary for resolving the instant confrontation between claims of conscience and the pragmatic needs of the judiciary.


On June 10, 11, and 23, 1981, Vernon Patrick, a prisoner incarcerated at the Clinton Correctional Facility, 1 petitioned the Prison Superintendent, the Prison Chaplain and the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections for recognition of the Five Percenters as a valid religious group within the prison. Patrick sought "permission to practice, exercise, promulgate, and gather together with others for the purpose of worshipping his faith of Islam, as a Five Percenter." All three requests for religious recognition were rejected. The reasons proffered to support the denial were identical--"The Five Percenter Nation of Islam is not recognized as a religious group."

We believe a thumbnail sketch of the Five Percenter creed, as gleaned from the record assembled by the trial court, is instructive in understanding the nub of the instant action. The Five Percent Nation of Islam, currently headquartered in New York City, was founded by Clarence 13X in the early 1960s and was intended to be a free-flowing, spiritual tributary of the Nation of Islam. As its numerical nomenclature suggests, the Five Percenter faith can be traced to the ancient papyrus scrolls that addressed the notion of creation in mathematical and symbolic terms. Indeed, the Five Percenter creed continues to conceive of its ideals by reference to the realm of mathematics.

Patrick described the animating goal of the Five Percent sect as the transmission of knowledge and spiritual guidance to the eighty-five percent of the population who are oppressed by the remaining ten percent. The eighty-five percenters are the "uncivilized men, women and children of the Earth that know not their true self"; the ten percenters are the rich subjugators who exert control via spiritual obfuscation. Notwithstanding the Five Percenter's expression of numerical hegemony, Patrick maintains that the sustaining ethos of the sect is one of spiritual enlightenment.

The texts upon which a Five Percenter relies for instruction in his daily practice represent a mixture of the common and the obscure--the Bible, Elijah Mohammed's Body of Lessons and Plus Lessons, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. In addition, Five Percenters recognize the existence of a Superior Being--Allah. Because Five Percenters believe their status is commensurate with that of the Superior Being, worship of Allah is tantamount to worship of oneself. Moreover, Five Percenters maintain that structured channels of belief are superfluous to, and indeed cannot coexist with a creed dedicated to the expression of one's individual conscience. Instead, the seeds of spiritual communication are nurtured from within. Guided by this precept, Clarence 13X created a faith marked by informality; he saw no need for a fixed place of worship where adherents could congregate regularly to exchange their ideas.

Prompted by the prison officials' refusals to recognize the Five Percenter creed, the saga of Vernon Patrick was begun anew in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. There, in February of 1982, Patrick filed suit, pro se, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, alleging the prison authorities violated his right to exercise freely his religious beliefs as guaranteed by the first amendment to the United States Constitution. Patrick sought a declaratory judgment that the prison officials' actions and policies contravened the free exercise clause of the first amendment, and requested injunctive relief ordering the prison authorities to permit Patrick to practice his religion, and compensatory and punitive damages. 2

In February 1983, Patrick, again appearing without counsel, was deposed by Daniel Saxe, an Assistant Attorney General. In explaining the purpose of the deposition, Saxe assured Patrick that, "This is not a trial. All I am seeking to do is gain information on what the lawsuit is about." During the course of this deposition, Patrick stated he had been a Five Percent adherent since 1965 but did not officially acknowledge his affiliation with the Five Percenters until 1981 for fear of reprisals by prison authorities. He also expatiated upon the nature of his beliefs. At one point, Patrick described the Five Percenter faith as a "way of life," but throughout the remainder of the deposition Patrick couched his discussion in spiritual terms, referring to his "worship of Allah," "recognition of a God," and "study of the Bible's teachings."

On September 15, 1983, the prison officials moved for summary judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), alleging that no genuine issue of material fact existed regarding either the sincerity of Patrick's belief or the nature of that belief. Ten days later, Patrick submitted a voluminous handwritten response in opposition to the prison officials' motion, in which he propounded by reference to objective, as well as subjective, indicia that his beliefs in the Five Percenter faith were sincerely held and religious in nature. 3 On November 10, 1983, Judge Foley granted the prison officials' motion for summary judgment and dismissed Patrick's complaint. Relying on Patrick's short-lived official affiliation with the Five Percent faith and a narrow definition of "religious belief" promulgated by the Third Circuit, 4 Judge Foley held that Patrick "has not made a clear showing" of the sincerity of his belief and "has failed to establish successfully that his beliefs and practices are religious in nature."

Although we might not have any quarrel with this conclusion had it been reached after a trial, we do hold that it was improper to grant the summary judgment motion, where resolution of the dispositive issues squarely implicated the claimant's state of mind.


Essential to an understanding of the propriety of the district court's grant of summary judgment is an appreciation of the limited function of the judiciary in determining whether beliefs are to be accorded first amendment protection. This limited inquiry reflects our society's abiding acceptance and tolerance of the unorthodox belief. Indeed, the blessings of our democracy are ensconced in the first amendment's unflinching pledge to allow our citizenry to explore diverse religious beliefs in accordance with the dictates of their conscience. This freedom to believe as one chooses without secular interference evinces an abiding confidence in the benefits attendant to a truly pluralistic state. The freedom to exercise religious beliefs cannot be made contingent on the objective truth of such beliefs. See United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78, 86, 64 S.Ct. 882, 886, 88 L.Ed. 1148 (1944).

It cannot be gainsaid that the judiciary is singularly ill-equipped to sit in judgment on the verity of an adherent's religious beliefs. Mindful of this profound limitation, our competence properly extends to determining "whether the beliefs professed by a [claimant] are sincerely held and whether they are, in his own scheme of things, religious." United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 185, 85 S.Ct. 850, 863, 13 L.Ed.2d 733 (1965). This two-pronged command expressly delineates the contours of our inquiry 5--beliefs must be sincerely held and religious in nature to be accorded first amendment protection.


Sincerity analysis seeks to determine an adherent's good faith in the expression of his religious belief. See International Society for Krishna Consciousness v. Barber, 650 F.2d 430, 441 (2d Cir.1981). This test provides a rational means of differentiating between those beliefs that are held as a matter of conscience and those that are animated by motives of deception and fraud. The latter variety, of course,...

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