United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
Elizabeth K. Dillon United States District Judge
Christopher Eugene Wilson, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed this action in April 2015 under the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Liberally interpreting the complaint, the court construes it also to allege claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1, et seq. Wilson asserts that the defendants violated his religious and equal protection rights by disallowing group religious study led by Jehovah’s Witnesses ministers. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, and Wilson responded thereto, making this matter ripe for disposition. Having reviewed the record, the court concludes that the defendants are entitled to summary judgment.
Wilson alleges that while he was housed at the New River Valley Regional Jail (“NRVRJ”), defendants Superintendent Gerald McPeak and Major Marty Stallard did not allow Jehovah’s Witnesses ministers to “come in and study with [the inmates] as a group, ” like they allow ministers of other religious groups to do. As relief, Wilson seeks damages and injunctive relief to allow a Jehovah’s Witnesses minister to lead a group service at the NRVRJ.
In their motion for summary judgment, defendants assert that Wilson’s complaint is based on a “mistaken belief that members of his congregation were denied a request that they be permitted to provide group services to inmates.” Defendants state that Wilson’s church leaders have made no such request. They also state that Wilson was permitted to meet with a pastor from his church every week, even while he was housed in segregation. Wilson does not contest that he was allowed to meet on an individual basis with his ministers. He limits his complaint to the lack of group religious study.
McPeak avers that the NRVRJ has a policy that permits and encourages volunteers from the community to come into the jail to provide a variety of services, including religious services.McPeak explains that there is a specific procedure in place for the approval, training, and orientation of community volunteers and that the procedures are in place to protect the security of the jail and ensure the usefulness and effectiveness of the volunteers. “Prospective volunteers shall complete an application for volunteer service. The application will be reviewed by the Programs Officer, who shall interview the applicant to determine whether he/she will meet the needs of the facility and where the applicant[’]s talents can best be utilized.” NRVRJ SOP No. 270, Procedures, C.
It appears defendants contributed to Wilson’s confusion by failing to mention this policy to him. Wilson filed a request for services in January 2015 asking for group study with his ministers like other religions. He was told, “We do not allow Jehovah’s Witnesses inside the secure part of the jail. The men that come in are Gideons and they are nondenominational.” He then filed grievances regarding the same and received similar responses. There is no indication that Wilson was advised of the need for a request from his ministers or about any application process.
Nonetheless, on March 10, 2015, the Programs Director at NRVRJ received an email from James Buckwalter, who wrote on behalf of the local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The email stated, in pertinent part:
As you know, the local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses has been faithfully visiting inmates at your facility for a number of years. Thus far, we have not had the same personal pastoral visitation access as other religious groups have been granted. This may be due in part to a failure on our part to inquire about the policies and procedures we would need to follow in order to receive that privilege. I am writing to request a brief meeting between you and two of our ministers . . . who are active in visiting some of your inmates.
The Programs Director replied to Buckwalter’s email the same day, and according to McPeak, Buckwalter never responded. Leaders from the Jehovah’s Witnesses church contacted jail officials again, and a meeting was held on May 28, 2015, to address both their request for increased access and Wilson’s claim that the leaders were denied the ability to conduct group religious services. McPeak avers that, during the meeting, it was confirmed that the Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders “simply wanted approval for additional volunteers from their church to be utilized when their regular volunteers could not visit due to illness, prior commitments, etc.” McPeak further avers that the Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders also “confirmed that they had no intention of conducting religious services to a group at the jail.” There is no mention of whether the Jehovah’s Witnesses ministers sought access to the secure part of the jail for purposes other than group religious study, but Wilson only complains of lack of group religious study.
McPeak declares that: 1) leaders from the Jehovah’s Witnesses church have not asked to conduct group religious services; 2) neither he nor anyone else at the jail has denied the leaders a request to conduct group religious services at the jail; 3) he has not prevented the church volunteers from going into the jail; and 4) he has not denied Wilson access to the church volunteers. McPeak states that he “cannot force [the Jehovah’s Witnesses] church to provide services that they are unable or unwilling to provide.”
Stallard declares that he did not deny the Jehovah’s Witnesses church leaders any request to provide different or more services, he did not deny Wilson access to the religious services and programs provided by Jehovah’s Witnesses volunteers, and he “does not have authority to force the leaders [of the church] to provide different or more services than there were able or willing to provide.”
In response to the motion for summary judgment, Wilson argues that Buckwater’s email proves that the Jehovah’s Witnesses church leaders want to provide group services at the jail, but the email itself does not state that. Wilson also states that the church leaders told him about the May 28, 2015 meeting and said that they requested permission to provide group religious services and their ...