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Singson v. Norris: PRISIONER'S RIGHTS | 1ST AMENDMENT - tarot card check-out, not-in-cell policy not Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act violation

1The Honorable David S. Doty, United States District Court for the District of
Minnesota, sitting by designation.
2The Honorable H. David Young, United States Magistrate Judge for the
Eastern District of Arkansas, to whom the case was referred for decision by the
consent of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 636(c).
United States Court of Appeals
No. 08-1570
Mark W. Singson, *
Plaintiff-Appellant, *
v. * Appeal from the United States
* District Court for the Eastern
Larry Norris, Director, Arkansas * District of Arkansas.
Department of Correction; Eddie *
Sinset, Administrator of Religious *
Services, ADC, *
Defendants-Appellees. *
Submitted: December 10, 2008
Filed: January 27, 2009
Before MELLOY and BENTON, Circuit Judges, and DOTY,1 District Judge.
BENTON, Circuit Judge.
Inmate Mark W. Singson sued Arkansas Department of Correction officials,
alleging constitutional and statutory violations. Following trial, the district court2
ruled for the ADC officials. Singson appeals the Religious Land Use and
Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) claim. Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C.
1291, this court affirms.
Singson, a Wiccan, uses tarot cards for religious purposes. ADC policy
requires inmates to check out tarot cards from a chaplain and prohibits keeping cards
in cells. Singson asserts that this policy violates his rights under RLUIPA by
inhibiting spontaneous readings.
An ADC expert witness testified that the policy was necessary to prevent (1)
gambling, as tarot cards can be manipulated for use as playing cards; (2) trafficking,
since card readings could be conducted in exchange for goods or services; (3)
psychological control, as some prisoners may believe tarot card-holders have special
powers; and (4) gang symbols on tarot cards, which could be used to promote or
defame gangs, leading to violence.
Ruling for the ADC officials, the district court noted that Singson checked out
the tarot cards numerous times, that prison chaplains never rejected his check-out
requests, and that ADC policy permits Singson to keep other Wiccan religious items
in his cell. The court found that, even if the check-out system burdens Singsons
religious beliefs, it is the least restrictive policy that promotes prison safety while
accommodating Singsons religious beliefs.
When a district court enters judgment after a trial, this court reviews the
findings of fact for clear error and the legal rulings de novo. Eckert v. Titan Tire
Corp., 514 F.3d 801, 804 (8th Cir. 2008), citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(a).
Prison inmates retain constitutional rights protected by the First Amendment,
including the right to free exercise of religion. Fegans v. Norris, 537 F.3d 897, 902
(8th Cir. 2008), citing OLone v. Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 348 (1987). Congress
enacted RLUIPA to provide additional protection for institutionalized persons
religious freedom. See Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Pub.
L. No. 106-274, 114 Stat. 803 (2000); Fegans, 537 F.3d at 902 (discussing
Congresss objectives when enacting RLUIPA). RLUIPA states, in part:
No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious
exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution, as defined
in section 1997 of this title, even if the burden results from a rule of
general applicability, unless the government demonstrates that
imposition of the burden on that person
(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling
governmental interest.
42 U.S.C. 2000cc-1(a). State prisons are 1997 institutions. Id. 1997(1)(A),
Under RLUIPA, Singson must show, as a threshold matter, that there is a
substantial burden on his ability to exercise his religion. Murphy v. Missouri Dept
of Corr., 372 F.3d 979, 988 (8th Cir. 2004). If Singson meets this requirement, ADC
officials must show that the tarot card policy is the least restrictive means to further
a compelling interest. Id.
Prison officials do not challenge the sincerity of Singsons religious beliefs.
Rather, they assert that the check-out policy is the least restrictive policy that achieves
the compelling government interest of prison safety while accommodating Singsons
religious beliefs.
Prison safety and security are compelling government interests. Fegans, 537
F.3d at 906. RLUIPA does not elevate accommodation of religious observances
over an institutions need to maintain order and security. Id. at 902, quoting Cutter
v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 722 (2005). After discussing the four security concerns
cited by the ADC expert witness gambling, trafficking, psychological control, and
gang symbols the district court concluded that unrestricted prisoner access to tarot
cards would create security problems. The court found that the potential effect of incell
use on the guards and allocation of prison resources outweighs the restrictions felt
by any interested inmate-users.
The prisons security concerns, supported by expert testimony, receive
deference. A prison is free to deny inmate religious requests predicated on RLUIPA
if they jeopardize the effective functioning of an institution. Cutter, 544 U.S. at
726. When enacting RLUIPA, Congress was mindful of the urgency of discipline,
order, safety, and security in penal institutions. Id. at 723 (citation omitted).
Congress anticipated that courts would apply the Acts standard with due deference
to the experience and expertise of prison and jail administrators in establishing
necessary regulations and procedures to maintain good order, security and discipline,
consistent with considerations of costs and limited resources. Id. (quotations and
citation omitted). The district court did not clearly err by relying on the expert
witnesss testimony, or by finding that the tarot card policy furthers prison security
while protecting Singsons rights.
Finally, Singson argues that the district court failed to make the necessary
findings of fact and conclusions of law, as required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(a). A
district courts failure to make specific findings of fact, as required by F.R.C.P. 52(a),
is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Darst-Webbe Tenant Assn Bd. v. St. Louis
Hous. Auth., 339 F.3d 702, 711 (8th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). Singson contends
that the court did not enter findings about his religious beliefs and practices, or
identify which of ADCs proffered security concerns was compelling. However, as
Singsons religious beliefs and practices were undisputed, the district court need not
reach the issue. The district court properly analyzed the prisons security concerns as
a group, concluding that in-cell use would strain prison security resources.
Likewise, Singson contends that the district court failed to analyze less
restrictive alternatives that would achieve ADCs security goals. Ruling for the ADC
officials, the court noted that the parties presented only one deck of tarot cards,
precluding consideration of alternative policies for tarot cards that cannot be
manipulated for gambling. The district courts order complied with Fed. R. Civ. P.
The judgment is affirmed.


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