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ERLC joins brief defending inmates’ religious rights

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy entity has joined a wide diversity of organizations in calling for the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a federal law protecting the religious freedom of prisoners.

The SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission joined in a friend-of-the-court brief contending the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) is constitutional. The ERLC supported the brief as a member of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion. The Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed the brief on behalf of the coalition.

Oral arguments in the case, which is Cutter v. Wilkinson, will be heard by the high court sometime after February, and the justices are expected to announce a decision before they adjourn in the summer.

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

The case, which is on appeal from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, involves some Ohio prisoners who hold unconventional beliefs. They assert that state corrections rules denying them access to religious material and the opportunity to perform religious services violate RLUIPA and the Ohio Constitution.

One of the prisoners, John Cutter, is an avowed Satanist, while other plaintiffs include an ordained minister of a white supremacist group and a follower of Asatru, a polytheistic religion that originated with the Vikings.

The brief says the coalition does not take a position on the specific facts in the case but is defending the constitutionality of RLUIPA.

“One vital thing that history and our Baptist heritage have taught us is that it is lethally dangerous to allow governments to discriminate against religion and among religions,” ERLC President Richard Land told Baptist Press. “To protect religious freedom and freedom of conscience for all, we must oppose any government’s effort to discriminate among religions when it attempts to deem some acceptable and others unacceptable.

“We must always remember that what we allow the government to do to Jehovah’s Witnesses or Hare Krishnas today, they may well attempt to do to us and other faiths in the future. We would do well to remember that when we are irritated by Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on our door or Hare Krishnas impeding our progress at airports,” Land said. “RLUIPA continues to stand as a strong defense of the soul liberty that we as Baptists and as Americans believe is the God-given right of every human being.”

The Sixth Circuit is the only one of five federal appeals courts to invalidate RLUIPA. The Fourth, Seventh, Ninth and 11th circuits have upheld the prisoner provision in the law.

The coalition’s brief, which was filed with the court Dec. 20, contends RLUIPA is an appropriate accommodation of religious free exercise and does not violate the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion. According to the brief, the law passes the high court’s three-part Lemon test: (1) It has a secular purpose; (2) it does not promote religion primarily, and (3) it does not establish excessive entanglement with religion. The Lemon test has guided the high court’s decision-making in establishment clause cases since it was outlined in the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman opinion.

RLUIPA “does not invest religious prisoners with absolute rights,” the brief says. “Instead, it provides a means to account for the interests of others who might be impacted by a particular religious practice.

“In many, if not most, RLUIPA cases, the requested accommodation will not impose any harm at all on other prisoners, guards or other third parties.”

Becket Fund President Anthony Picarello said in a written statement that the high court’s ruling “will affect what are literally thousands of accommodations for religion only — a tradition dating back to at least the founding [of the country] — contained in federal, state and local laws nationwide.”

Among the nearly 60 organizations signing onto the brief as part of the coalition were the Baptist Joint Committee, American Center for Law and Justice, Anti-Defamation League, National Council of Churches, Christian Legal Society, People for the American Way, Liberty Counsel, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Prison Fellowship and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Congress adopted RLUIPA after the more expansive Religious Freedom Restoration Act was invalidated by the Supreme Court. In passing RLUIPA, Congress sought to address two of the areas in which government most commonly inhibits religious free exercise.

The Sixth Circuit consists of federal courts in the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan.

The coalition’s brief may be accessed online at https://www.becketfund.org/pdfs/328_28.pdf