Before High Court: Law That Allows for Religious Rights ; the Justices Will Consider to What Extent Certain Prisoners Can Practice Religion

Article excerpt

A lawsuit by a group of prison inmates in Ohio is raising the difficult question of when the government's accommodation of religious beliefs may go too far.

At issue in the case set for oral argument at the US Supreme Court Monday is whether the granting of religious exemptions from certain laws or regulations when they clash with religious beliefs amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by government. The case is particularly significant for minority religions and their adherents who rely on such accommodations to practice their faith freely without government interference.

Lawyers for the inmates warn that if the high court embraces Ohio's approach, it will invalidate such longstanding religious accommodations as the exemption from military service for religious conscientious objectors. It could also bar paid chaplains from prisons and could force mandatory medical regulations upon those who rely on prayer alone for their healthcare.

Lawyers for Ohio say they are not seeking such sweeping change. Their argument applies only to a prison setting, they say.

At the center of the case is the constitutionality of a 2000 federal law - the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act - which requires state and local governments to accommodate the religious exercise of anyone housed in a government institution, including state prisons.

The Ohio inmates who filed suit are followers of the Wiccan faith, Satanism, Odinism, and The Church of Jesus Christ Christian. The inmates say prison officials refuse to permit them access to books, ceremonial items, and other accommodations that they say are essential to their worship.

Ohio prison officials say the worship services are a ruse used to plan and carry out prison gang activity, jeopardizing security. They argue that the federal law, RLUIPA, is an unconstitutional endorsement of the religions of certain inmates that tramples upon the state's authority to determine how best to run its prisons.

"RLUIPA is far more than an accommodation," says Ohio Solicitor Douglas Cole in his brief to the court. "It is a powerful tool that prisoners advancing religious claims can use to obtain accommodations."

David Goldberger, an Ohio State University law professor who is representing the inmates, says the law is aimed at helping religious individuals overcome government-imposed burdens so they may be left alone to practice their faith better.

"Because RLUIPA is confined to lifting burdens on religious exercise, it does not involve the government in religious exercise, give benefits to religion, or prefer one religion over another," he says in his brief. …