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Home » Archives » Legislative Issues » National Legislation Issues Archive » High Court Upholds Inmates' Right to Religious Accommodation

High Court Upholds Inmates' Right to Religious Accommodation

WASHINGTON, DC – The Supreme Court today unanimously upheld the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) that in part requires state prisons to accomodate prisoners' religious exercises as long as they are not disruptive.

The case had been filed by Ohio inmates, including a witch and a Satanist who had alleged they were denied access to religious literature, ceremonial items, and time to worship.

Under a federal law passed in 2000, states that receive federal money are required to accomodate prisoners' religious beliefs unless wardens can show that accomodation would be disruptive. In opposition, some lawmakers had argued that inmate requests for particular diets, special haircuts, or religious symbols could make it harder to manage prisons.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who authored the Court's opinion said that the 2000 federal law was intended to protect the rights of prisoners and did not constitute an unconstitutional government promotion of religion. "It confers no privileged status on any partciular religious sect, and singles out no bona fide faith for disadvantageous treatment."

Today's decision overturns a ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, located in Cincinnati, which had struck down part of the law, called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, on grounds it violated separation of church and state. The 6th Circuit was the only court to argue that RLUIPA was unconstitutional.

Michael Peabody, an California attorney with the Church State Council supported the court's decision on this issue. "This is a victory even though we may have theological disagreement with the plaintiffs. The court said, in effect, that Congress did not establish a religion simply by upholding the rights of inmates to limited religious accomodation. This is good news for all peaceful people of faith because their right to worship according to their beliefs, even in prison, has been recognized and upheld."

The Court has a long history of recognizing that accomodating religious practice by private individuals is, in itself, a legitimate secular purpose of legislation that would pass scrutiny under the Establishment Clause. RLUIPA, Peabody says, falls in line with the legislative accomodations of religion that the Court has traditionally upheld. Further, RLUIPA enhanced the secular purpose of correctional facilities in helping to rehabilitation those prisoners who have religious inclinations.

The Court has left the door open for a challenge on the basis that RLUIPA may unduly burden correctional institutions by requiring accomodation for religious beliefs.

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For More Information:

The written transcript of the oral argument is available at http://www.supremecourtus.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/03-9877.pdf

Case briefs and other information are available at http://www.rluipa.com/cases/CutterSC.html