Short Take: Teddy On The Cross

Some scoundrels refuse to accept pastafarianism. Some doubted David Berkowitz’s taking direction from a dog. But the Second Circuit has ruled that the laugh test doesn’t apply to religious beliefs.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit revived a Brooklyn prisoner’s complaint that a jail policy forbidding inmates stuffed animals violated his religious rights.

Inmate Christopher Grief, in his second amended complaint filed in February 2016 against Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn Warden Herman Quay, alleged violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Grief stated that, while he “does not belong to any mainstream religion,” his beliefs—stemming from “various religions” such as Buddhism but also “from science and science fiction as well as his life experiences”—lead him to find “spiritual guidance from his stuffed animals during meditation.”

It’s unclear whether this applies for all stuffed animals, like the old-school Gunds, or just the newer ones like Beanie Babies. It’s not entirely clear why stuffed animals are forbidden in prison. Maybe they can be turned into weapons? Maybe fights break out over inmates stealing them? It would seem that a prisoner clinging to his beloved animal could give rise to shower issues. But if a guy gets his spiritual guidance from his teddy, what’s a court to do?

In April 2016, U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen for the Eastern District of New York dismissed with prejudice Grief’s complaint for failure to state a claim. According to Chen, while Grief’s beliefs regarding stuffed animals may be sincere, “they do not, and cannot, demonstrate that these beliefs are religious in nature.”

Quoting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 opinion in Frazee v. Ill. Dept. of Empl. Sec., Chen said Grief’s beliefs fall “within the category of beliefs that are ‘so bizarre, so clearly nonreligious in motivation, as not to be entitled to protection.’”

This is the thoughtful way in which an experienced district court judge explains, “are you fucking kidding me?” The Second Circuit replied, “No. No we are not.”

In a summary order, the panel said that Chen erred in not determining through fact-finding whether the belief’s professed are religious in nature. The circuit’s precedent in Patrick v. LeFevre allows for a more “subjective definition” that requires an examination of “an individual’s inward attitudes towards a particular belief system” before an RFRA determination can be made.

“Accepting Grief’s allegations as true and construing the complaint in the light most favorable to him, with the special solicitude that we afford to a pro se litigant, we conclude that the district court erred in deciding that Grief’s belief regarding stuffed animals could not plausibly constitute a religious belief, and that the district court therefore erred in dismissing Grief’s RFRA claim at this stage,” the panel stated.

I’m adorable. Pray to me.

Who would doubt that it’s “plausible” that stuffed animals “constitute a religious belief”?

And so the circuit remanded the case back to EDNY Judge Pamela Chen, raising the only serious question in this case. What did she do to so piss off the circuit that they sent this case back to her?

Attorneys for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York represented the government on appeal. A spokesman for the office declined to comment on the panel’s decision.

They lost to a stuffed animal. This has got to be humiliating.

29 comments on “Short Take: Teddy On The Cross

  1. B. McLeod

    “What does it mean, to be real?” A question a velveteen rabbit might ask (but not a velveteen rabbitish question).

  2. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    Sometimes, because I manage our pro se docket, I amuse myself by rewriting opinions from Courts of Appeals regarding pro se litigation. Here is a rewrite of the opinion to which you refer which includes a blast from the past that you are old enough to remember:

    “Accepting [the plaintiff’s allegations as true and construing the complaint in the light most favorable to him, with the special solicitude that we afford to a pro se litigant, we conclude that the district court erred in deciding that [the plaintiff’s] belief regarding [pet rocks] could not plausibly constitute a religious belief, and that the district court therefore erred in dismissing [the plaintiff’s] RFRA claim at this stage,”

    All the best.

    RGK

    1. SHG Post author

      I was too poor to get a pet rock. And even if I could have afforded to buy one, I didn’t have the money to feed it.

      1. Jyjon

        I never went for those commercially raised pet rocks. I had a wild pet rock. Took it from it’s mother at a young age. And when I say wild, it was very wild. I couldn’t control it at times. One night it drunk on beer it took from the local 7-11 and put a few holes in the livingroom wall. It was crazy, it broke some the neighbors windows when they woke it up in the middle of the night. It hid inside a sock and then, like a lunatic, attacked the kid who had been bullying me. But one day it went too far, it tried to take on a train. My pet rock, no, my best friend, shattered into so many pieces, and like humpty-dumpty it couldn’t be put back together again. It wasn’t but a few hours later that it finally died. I acceded to it’s last wishes and buried it in the the oil fill port of the school bus. Looking back now, I realize it must of been an angel from heaven. And that is why to this day, I am a Rockaryan. “May bricks and stones break they’re bones so peace is forever with them. Amen”

  3. wilbur

    From the NY Daily News: However, Grief, 28, may have had other plans for the toys considering the criminal complaint alleges that he told the FBI that he likes to have sex with stuffed animals. “He’s a plushie,” said a law enforcement source, referring to the slang term for the unofficial psychiatric disorder known as “plushophilia.”

    He stuffs them pro se, too.

        1. B. McLeod

          That was a long time ago. It’s probably OK today, if the person involved “identifies” as an animal.

    1. Fubar

      Just as I’m recovering from too many things happening at once, demand overwhelms me. I’m touched. Truly. Maybe in more ways than one.

      … the criminal complaint alleges that he told the FBI that he likes to have sex with stuffed animals.

      From my treatise on True Manhood:

      Every true man must once, if he dare,
      Kiss¹ a beautiful lass², kill a bear.
      To do the reverse
      Is not only perverse,
      It could land you in intensive care!³

      FN 1: Or something.

      FN 2: Provided she is the age of consent in your jurisdiction, and not enrolled in a federally funded educational institution subject to Title IX.

      FN 3: As well as LWOP, if you’re lucky.

  4. Morgan O.

    Someone send up the Fubar signal; this story begs for a limerick. Do we have a Fubar signal? We need a Fubar signal.

    1. Patrick Maupin

      If fubar’s not here,
      Just have another beer
      And write a bad limerick.
      Sometimes that does the trick
      and gets him in gear.

      1. SHG Post author

        Bad limericks serve to entice
        Fubar to bring back his spice
        It may involve beer
        Which may make him severe
        But having him back would be nice.

  5. that david from Oz

    there once was a plushie named grief
    who’s pecadilloes defied all belief
    the 2nd said fine, take them up the behind
    We’re all big fans of self-relief

    i’m no Fubar, but who is in these topsy turvy times . . .

    1. B. McLeod

      Now the district judge finds herself stuck in
      All the muck the appellate court’s chuckin’
      That they sided with Grief
      Nearly beggars belief
      (But you know they won’t eat that turducken)

  6. Lucas Beauchamp

    As Ishmael said while Queequeg was engaging in a ritual, “I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, no matter how comical.”

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