Richard A. Posner
Richard A. Posner

Illinois prison officials “gratuitously” violated an inmate’s religious rights when they confiscated a medallion symbolizing his Wiccan faith, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Gilbert Knowles is entitled to a preliminary injunction allowing him to wear a pentacle medallion while the lawsuit he filed under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act is pending.

The pentacle medallion, a five-point star set in a circle, is to Wiccans what the cross is to many Christians.

Knowles says the medallion protects his body and spirit against “evil entities” and “negative energy.”

He filed his suit after officials at downstate Pontiac Correctional Center took the one-inch medallion from him even though it was small enough to comply with regulations governing inmate jewelry.

Prison officials defended the move by citing an Illinois Department of Corrections policy barring inmates from possessing five-point or six-point star symbols.

Such symbols are used as gang identifiers and could lead to attacks by inmates who believe — correctly or incorrectly — that a fellow prisoner belongs to a rival gang, officials contended.

Chief U.S. District Judge James E. Shadid of the Central District of Illinois denied Knowles’ motion for a preliminary injunction.

In overturning that decision, a 7th Circuit panel rejected Shadid’s conclusion that Knowles failed to show he faces irreparable harm — a requirement for obtaining an injunction — if he is not allowed to wear the medallion.

The panel wrote it does not understand how barring a “devout practitioner” from engaging in a religious observance can be deemed harmless simply because the practitioner may engage in other observances.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that argument in Holt v. Hobbes, 135 S. Ct. 853 (2015), the panel wrote.

The panel also questioned Shadid’s conclusion that equitable relief in the form of an injunction was not needed because Knowles could seek a legal remedy.

Monetary damages for the denial of a religious entitlement are not an adequate remedy, the panel wrote.

And the panel wrote it doesn’t know how Knowles can obtain any remedy at all unless prison officials are enjoined from violating RLUIPA.

The statute bars the government from imposing a substantial burden on an inmate’s exercise of religion “even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”

This prohibition on the government applies unless the burden on the inmate furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive way of doing so.

This exception does not shield prison officials from Knowles’ suit, the panel wrote.

“The ‘unless’ clause doesn’t seem applicable to the plaintiff in this case, who is willing to wear his medallion under his shirt whenever he’s outside his cell to protect himself from being identified as a gang member,” Judge Richard A. Posner wrote for the panel.

The panel also noted Knowles had submitted an affidavit from another Wiccan inmate who won his own suit when officials tried to confiscate his pentacle medallion.

The inmate asserted that he has worn his medallion in maximum security prisons since 1998 without being threatened or assaulted by other inmates, the panel wrote.

“The plaintiff has demonstrated his entitlement to the preliminary injunction he is seeking,” Posner wrote. “His freedom of religion has been gratuitously infringed by the prison.”

Joining the opinion were Chief Judge Diane P. Wood and Judge Joel M. Flaum. Gilbert Knowles v. Randy Pfister, No. 15-1703.

Knowles represented himself before the 7th Circuit.

Illinois Assistant Attorney General Mary Ellen Margaret Welsh represented Pontiac warden Randy Pfister.

Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Nicole J. Wilson declined to comment because the case is pending.