News Articles

Another appeals court upholds inmates’ religious rights

WASHINGTON (BP)–The federal judiciary has delivered another victory for prisoners’ religious rights.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) does not violate the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion. The court became the fourth federal court of appeals to uphold RLUIPA. The Fourth, Seventh and Ninth circuits also have ruled in favor of the law’s prisoners provision.

The Sixth Circuit is the only appeals court to strike down the law, and the Supreme Court has agreed to review that decision to determine RLUIPA’s constitutionality. Oral arguments in the case, which is Cutter v. Wilkinson, have yet to be scheduled by the high court but will be heard in February or later.

RLUIPA, which was signed into law by President Clinton in 2000, bars government policies that substantially burden free exercise of religion by prisoners and, in land-use cases, by a person or institution. The government, however, can receive an exemption if it can demonstrate it has a compelling interest and is using the least restrictive means to advance that interest.

The 11th Circuit’s Dec. 2 affirmation of RLUIPA came in Benning v. Georgia, which involves the state prison system’s refusal of an inmate’s requests to practice his Jewish faith. Ralph Benning asked prison officials to allow him to wear a yarmulke and eat only kosher food. When his requests were denied, Benning submitted an internal grievance that was rejected by prison officials before he filed a lawsuit under RLUIPA.

RLUIPA’s prisoners provision passes the Lemon test, the three-part examination established by the Supreme Court in establishment clause cases, a three-judge panel ruled. It has a secular purpose, does not promote or inhibit religion, and does not excessively entangle the state with religion, the judges said.

“If, as Georgia argues, protecting religious exercise rights alone reflects an impermissible bias in favor of religion, then protecting any fundamental right other than religion would reflect impermissible bias against religion,” Judge William Pryor wrote in behalf of the panel. “Given the necessarily strict rules that govern every aspect of prison life, the failure of prison officials to accommodate religion, even in the absence of RLUIPA, would not be neutral; it would be hostile to religion.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Benning, applauded the decision and expressed hope it would be a preview of the Supreme Court’s ruling next year.

“Prisoners should not be forced to check their religion, along with their civilian clothing, at the jailhouse doorstep,” Becket legal counsel Jared Leland said in a written release. “In fact, religion is often the root of rehabilitation, and so prisoners should and must be free to practice.”

Congress passed RLUIPA after the more expansive Religious Freedom Restoration Act was struck down by the high court. In adopting RLUIPA, Congress –- with the support of a diverse coalition of organizations that included the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission –- sought to address two of the areas in which government most commonly inhibits religious free exercise.

President Bush placed Pryor on the 11th Circuit Court in February by way of a recess appointment. Senate Democrats had blocked the former Alabama attorney general’s confirmation to the post by means of a filibuster.

The 11th Circuit consists of federal courts in Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

    About the Author

  • Staff