A Boost for Religious Practice ; A Supreme Court Decision on Prison Rights Is Seen as a Win for Minority Religious Groups, Too

Article excerpt

Government accommodations of religious worship are not an unconstitutional form of favoritism.

In a major First Amendment decision acknowledging the power of Congress to safeguard religious liberty, the US Supreme Court Tuesday ruled 9 to 0 that religious accommodations do not violate the Constitution's prohibition of government endorsement of religion.

The high court's ruling upholds a federal law that requires state corrections officials to remove any unjustified burdens on the ability of prison inmates to worship.

The decision marks an important victory not only for religious inmates but for all minority religious groups in the United States that rely on such accommodations to freely practice their faith without government interference. A ruling that invalidated the federal law would have placed in question a wide range of religious accommodations and exemptions.

At issue before the court was whether special accommodations to facilitate worship by adherents of minority religions in prison violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Critics of the law - which is called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) - say that granting certain benefits to religious individuals that are not also granted to the nonreligious violates requirements that the government remain strictly neutral in matters of faith.

The court unanimously rejected this view. "Our decisions recognize that there is room for play in the joints between the two religion clauses of the First Amendment, some space for legislative action neither compelled by the Free Exercise Clause nor prohibited by the Establishment Clause," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in announcing the decision. RLUIPA "fits within the corridor between the two clauses."

Tuesday's ruling stems from a series of lawsuits filed by prison inmates in Ohio. The inmates - all adherents of nonmainstream religions such as Satanism and Wicca - complained that prison officials were refusing to permit them access to religious services, literature, and ceremonial items needed to practice their religions.

Corrections officials countered by saying that religious accommodations might undermine prison security and facilitate gang activities. They also questioned the constitutionality of RLUIPA, a federal law that requires prison officials to find the least restrictive means to accommodate worship in government institutions.

A federal judge rejected the state's constitutional challenge and upheld the law. But a panel of the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down as a violation of the separation of church and state.

Within the confines of a prison, any special privileges accorded to some inmates can create an incentive for other inmates to obtain the same privileges, the appeals court ruled. …