Constitutional Law - First Circuit Questions Correctional Facility's Blanket Ban on Inmate Preaching

By Chase, Rachel S. | Suffolk University Law Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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Constitutional Law - First Circuit Questions Correctional Facility's Blanket Ban on Inmate Preaching


Chase, Rachel S., Suffolk University Law Review


Constitutional Law--First Circuit Questions Correctional Facility's Blanket Ban on Inmate Preaching--Spratt v. Rhode Island Department of Corrections, 482 F.3d 33 (1st Cir. 2007)

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) protects the religious freedom of individuals confined to government institutions. (1) Enacted in 2000, RLUIPA prohibits mental and correctional facilities from imposing substantial burdens on the religious exercise of persons residing therein, unless the facility can show a compelling interest effectuated in a narrowly tailored manner. (2) In Spratt v. Rhode Island Department of Corrections, (3) the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit considered whether the blanket ban on inmate preaching by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC) constituted a permissible restriction on religious exercise within the purview of RLUIPA. (4) The First Circuit held that under RLUIPA, RIDOC must affirmatively demonstrate that the regulation is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling interest, rather than merely asserting it. (5)

On December 20, 1995, Wesley Spratt was involved in a robbery in downtown Providence that resulted in a parking lot attendant's death. (6) The state tried Spratt before a jury on five charges and he was convicted of three, including murder. (7) Spratt received a life sentence, which he is currently serving in the maximum security unit of the Adult Correctional Institute (ACI) in Rhode Island. (8)

While incarcerated at ACI, an institution that receives federal funding, Spratt began preaching to other inmates during weekly religious services under the supervision of an ordained minister. (9) Spratt preached for a period of seven years without incident or interference by prison officials. (10) In 2003, however, officials informed Spratt that RIDOC policy prohibited inmate preaching, and he would be disciplined if he continued to preach. (11) Spratt objected to the policy both verbally and in writing. (12)

After exhausting his internal remedies without relief, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Spratt filed a complaint against RIDOC in the United States Court for the District of Rhode Island, asserting that the facility's policy violated his rights under the First Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and RLUIPA. (13) The district court granted summary judgment to RIDOC on all claims, including the RLUIPA claim, finding that RIDOC had met its burden of proof on each required element. (14) On appeal, the First Circuit reversed the decision of the district court and remanded it for further proceedings to allow RIDOC an opportunity to demonstrate, rather than merely assert, that Spratt's preaching raised security concerns sufficient to outweigh the statutory presumption against restricting religious exercise. (15)

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects, among other things, the free exercise of religion, including the right to preach. (16) Congress has attempted to supplement this constitutional protection with statutes prohibiting the creation and enforcement of laws that substantially burden the free exercise of religious practices. (17) In September 2000, Congress passed RLUIPA to protect inmates who are dependent on correctional facilities to provide accommodation for their religious exercises. (18)

Under RLUIPA, correctional facilities may not impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of their inmates, unless the restriction survives a strict scrutiny review. (19) If an inmate can show that his religious freedom is substantially hindered by the restriction, the correctional facility must prove that the burden, although substantial, furthers a compelling government interest and is carried out in the least restrictive means possible. (20) In passing RLUIPA, Congress noted that due deference should be afforded to prison officials when reviewing their policies, and subsequently, the Supreme Court declared prison security a compelling government interest.

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