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Prisoner Possession of Prayer Oil Upheld by 9th Circuit

Johnson v. Baker Docket: 20-17202, Opinion Date: January 26, 2022. In an action brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the district court entered an injunction, requiring Nevada prison officials to allow the plaintiff to possess no more than a half-ounce of scented oil in his cell for personal use with his prayers. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. Noting RLUIPA's expansive protections for religious liberty, the court concluded that Nevada’s regulation banning personal possession of scented oil substantially burdened the plaintiff’s religious exercise and that Nevada failed to show that the regulation was the least restrictive means of serving compelling interests in general prison security and minimizing contraband. The plain language of RLUIPA prohibits courts from evaluating the centrality of a religious practice or belief, 42 U.S.C. 2000cc-5(7)(A); a court can only scrutinize the sincerity of the prisoner’s beliefs. The court, therefore, rejected assertions that scented oil was not “really that important” to the plaintiff’s worship practice or that plaintiff needed to point to textual support or oral history proving that the Prophet Mohammad used scented oil in prayer. The court noted that the regulation prohibited the plaintiff from using scented oil for prayer—the way the plaintiff believes the Prophet Muhammed prayed—for 34 out of his 35 prayers per week. #prayeroil #religiousfreedoms #rluipa #nevadaprisoner

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