Inmates Can't Get Monetary Damages in Religion Cases, Says Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that prison inmates cannot seek monetary damages from the state when their rights under a federal religious liberty law are violated.
The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)was passed in part to protect prisoners' rights to practice their religion.
The case before the high court considered a situation at a Texas penitentiary, in which Harvey Sossamon III and other inmates on disciplinary restrictions were not allowed to attend Christian services in the prison chapel. However, inmates were allowed to use the chapel for non-religious purposes and could leave their cells for non-religious reasons, such as educational classes and using the library.
Sossamon, arguing that the policy violated his religious freedom, filed a lawsuit against Texas. He claimed that since the state receives some federal funds to run the prison, he should be entitled to "appropriate relief" under RLUIPA.
Both the federal district court and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Sossamon's claim, citing state sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine that protects states from lawsuits seeking monetary damages.
In a 6-2 ruling April 20, the Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts.
Writing for the majority in Sossamon v. Texas, Justice Clarence Thomas said that states do not waive sovereign immunity merely because they receive money from the federal government.
The ruling still allows prisoners to receive other types of relief under the statute. …