Magazine article The Christian Century

Supreme Court Upholds Inmates' Religious Rights

Magazine article The Christian Century

Supreme Court Upholds Inmates' Religious Rights

Article excerpt

A unanimous Supreme Court has upheld a five-year-old federal law that makes it easier for prison inmates--and others--to assert their religious freedom.

The justices validated on May 31 the constitutionality of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA. The law was passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000. It was designed to make it harder for government entities to curtail significantly a group's or individual's religious rights.

One section of RLUIPA requires states to accommodate religious practices by inmates in their prisons--such as providing a special diet or allowing them to wear a particular kind of religious dress--unless prison officials can show a compelling reason not to grant such requests. If the officials can provide such a justification, they must then also show they have burdened the inmate's religious exercise in the least restrictive manner possible.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in writing the court's opinion, said the relevant section of the statute "does not, on its face, exceed the limits of permissible government accommodation of religious practices."

At stake was whether Congress may pass laws creating special protections for religious practices among institutionalized persons. The court's decision also is seen to have the potential to extend far beyond prison walls--to any laws making it easier for individuals or organizations to practice their faith.

The case, Cutter v. Wilkinson, involved several current and former inmates of Ohio prisons who sued the state to gain accommodations for their various nonmainstream religious practices. They included practitioners of Satanism, the Wicea religion and a white-supremacist form of Christianity.

Although RLUIPA passed with support from a broad spectrum of political and religious leaders, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2003 used the lawsuit to overturn the section of the law that relates to prisoners.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court said RLUIPA's Section 3 violates the First Amendment's establishment clause, which prevents Congress from establishing a religion or giving any religion a legal preference. By specifically accommodating religious rights, the appeals court said, RLUIPA advances religion in general and gives religious prisoners preference over nonreligious prisoners.

But other federal appeals courts have upheld the law's constitutionality. …

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