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Armstrong v. Jewell

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

December 7, 2015

ANNE ARMSTRONG and ALAN GORDON, Plaintiffs,
v.
Honorable SALLY JEWELL, in her capacity as United States Secretary of the Interior, JONATHAN B. JARVIS, in his capacity as Director of the United States National Park Service, and JENNIFER SMITH, in her capacity as Site Manager for ROGER WILLIAMS NATIONAL PARK, Defendants

          Anne Armstrong, Plaintiff, Pro se, West Greenwich, RI.

         Alan Gordon, Plaintiff, Pro se, West Greenwich, RI.

         For Sally Jewell, in her capacity as United States Secretary of the Interior, Jonathan B. Jarvis, in his capacity as Director of the United States National Park Service, Jennifer Smith, in her capacity as Site Manager for Roger Williams National Memorial, Defendants: Bethany N. Wong, Richard Myrus, LEAD ATTORNEYS, U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Rhode Island, Providence, RI.

         ORDER AND MEMORANDUM

         Mary M. Lisi, Senior United States District Judge.

         The plaintiffs in this pro se action seek to conduct certain religious ceremonies -- which include the " sacramental use and distribution" of cannabis, or marijuana -- on the grounds of Rhode Island's only federal park. Revised Application for Special Use Permit (Dkt. No. 1-2 at Page 1 of 48). The matter before the Court is the government's motion to dismiss the Complaint. For the reasons that follow, the government's motion is GRANTED.

         I. Factual Background

         Anne Armstrong (" Armstrong" ) and Alan Gordon (" Gordon," together with Armstrong, the " Plaintiffs" ) are members of " The Healing Church," which they describe as " new and barely corporate." Complaint at ¶ 5. According to the Plaintiffs, the Healing Church is " a Cannabist Faith," which involves the use of marijuana during religious services. The current litigation was initiated by the Plaintiffs to enable them to conduct such services at the Roger Williams National Memorial (the " National Memorial" ), which is a four-acre site in the United States National Park Service system and, thus, located on federal land.

         On March 25, 2015, Armstrong submitted an application for a special use permit, requesting to conduct a prayer service on May 23, 2015 at the National Memorial, to " include the sacramental use and distribution of KNH BSM [Hebrew lettering] [cannabissativa]..." Exhibit 1 to Complaint (Dkt. No. 1-2). The requested location for the event is only described as " Roger Williams National Memorial," making no mention of a particular location within the park.[1] Id. For the question " Is this an exercise of First Amendment Rights?" Armstrong checked " Yes." Id. at Page 2 of 48.

         On April 22, 2015, National Memorial Site Manager Jennifer Smith (" Smith" ) advised Armstrong and Gordon that she had mailed their permit and she requested that they review the material, sign the permit, and mail it back to her. Exhibit 3 to Complaint (Dkt. No. 1-2, Page 5 of 48). Smith's cover letter notes that " this permit does not grant permission to undertake any activity that may violate Federal, State, or municipal laws or regulations," including the " Controlled Substances Act, the laws of the State of Rhode Island governing the possession and use of controlled substances, and 36 C.F.R. § 2.35[2], which prohibits the illegal possession or delivery of controlled substances within the National Park System." Exhibit 2 (Dkt. No. 1-2) at Page 32 of 48.

         The permit itself states that its issuance " is subject to the attached conditions" and that " the undersigned hereby accepts this permit subject to the terms, covenants, obligations, and reservations, expressed or implied herein." Id. at Page 3 of 48. The attached conditions specify that the permittee " shall comply with all applicable Federal, State, county and municipal laws, ordinances, regulations, codes, and the terms and conditions of this permit." Id. at Page 35 of 48.

         On April 23, 2015, Armstrong sent an e-mail[3] to Smith, requesting a number of changes. Inter alia, Armstrong asked Smith to amend the cover letter " to make it explicitly clear that no law enacted by Congress or any other agency of the State abridges our right to worship according to our interpretation of the scripture." Armstrong added that " [i]t would help if you could also make clear that your Park Police will protect our First Amendment rights against encroachment by any other agencies." Id. at Page 6 of 48.

         In response, Smith acknowledged receiving Armstrong's requests and noted that " none of the requests noted in your email dated April 23 would seem to require any changes to the language of the permit." Id. at Page 37 of 48. Armstrong signed the special use permit on May 4, 2015. Id. at Page 3 of 48.

         According to the Complaint, Armstrong and Gordon began daily[4] gatherings at the " Well site" of the Memorial on Saturday, May 16, 2015. Complaint ¶ 12. Armstrong and Gordon returned the following day and " again prayed with cannabis," but were advised by a park ranger and, later, two Providence police officers, that cannabis was not allowed. Complaint ¶ 13. On May 18, 2015, Armstrong and Gordon encountered a federal law enforcement officer[5] who asked them for identification and, according to the Plaintiffs, tried to write a warning for the possession of cannabis. Complaint ¶ 14. On Tuesday, May 19, 2015, several police vehicles were at the National Memorial. According to the Complaint, Armstrong and Gordon were " issued a summons for federal Magistrate's Court...indicating that a fine of over $100 was due." [6] They were then instructed to leave the park. Complaint ¶ 15. The Plaintiffs, together with another individual, returned to the National Memorial on May 20th, 2015, where they used cannabis while being observed by police officers. No one was arrested. Complaint ¶ 16.

         II. Procedural History

         On May 21, 2015, Armstrong and Gordon filed a twenty-page pro se " Complaint and Application for Urgent Injunction" (Dkt. No. 1), together with a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis (Dkt. No. 2). The Plaintiffs sought injunctive relief to preclude governmental interference with their planned " cannabis-related religious activity" at the National Memorial, specifically for the scheduled May 23, 2015 event. On May 22, 2015, the government filed an objection to the Plaintiffs' application, on the ground that the Plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (" RFRA" ) (Dkt. No. 3). After the Magistrate Judge recommended that Gordon's IFP motion be denied, see Report and Recommendation (Dkt. Nos. 4, 5), the required filing fee was paid.

         On May 22, 2015, this Court issued a Memorandum and Order, treating the Plaintiffs' application for " urgent injunction" as a motion for a temporary restraining order (" TRO" ). In light of the Plaintiffs' pro se status, the Court read their submitted pleadings liberally (Dkt. No. 10). After considering the Plaintiffs' submissions and the government's response, the Court concluded that the Plaintiffs had not met their burden of demonstrating a likelihood of success on the merits. The Court denied the motion for TRO. Id.

         On July 20, 2015, the government filed a motion to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted (Dkt. No. 11). Between July 31, 2015 and August 7, 2015, the Plaintiffs filed (1) an amended affidavit to the Complaint (Dkt. No. 12), (2) a response in opposition to the government's motion (Dkt. No. 13), (3) a motion for default judgment (Dkt. No. 14), and (4) the affidavit of Gordon (Dkt. No. 15), together with 14 new exhibits (Dkt. Nos. 16-1 through 17-6). In response, the government filed an objection to Plaintiffs' motion for default judgment (Dkt. No. 18), and a reply in support of the government's motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 19). The Plaintiffs filed a motion for leave to amend their objection to the motion to dismiss (Dkt. Nos. 20, 21), as well as a reply to the government's objection to the Plaintiffs' motion for default judgment (Dkt. No. 22).

         On August 18, 2015, the Court conducted a hearing on the various motions. With the consent of the government, the motion for leave to amend the Plaintiffs' objection to the government's motion to dismiss was treated as an amendment to the Complaint and, as such, the motion was granted. The Plaintiffs' motion for default judgment was denied. After both sides were given an opportunity to argue in support of their respective positions, the Court took the government's motion to dismiss the Complaint under advisement.

         III. Standard of Review

         A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted is governed by Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In considering a motion to dismiss a complaint the Court " must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, taking all well-pleaded facts as true, and giving the Plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences. Arruda v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 310 F.3d 13 (1st Cir. 2002). In order to withstand a motion to dismiss, a claim " must contain sufficient factual matter ... to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Katz v. Pershing, LLC,672 F.3d 64, 72-73 (1st Cir. 2012. The complaining party must include " factual content that allows the court to draw a reasonable inference" in the pleader's favor. Id. " If, under any theory, the allegations are sufficient to state a cause of action in accordance with the law," the motion to dismiss must be denied. Vartanian v. Monsanto Co.,14 F.3d 697, 700 (1st Cir. 1994). The Court ...


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