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
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. …