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Religious rights of prisoners upheld in 3rd federal case

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld prisoners’ religious rights under a three-year-old federal law, contradicting a month-old ruling from another circuit.

In a unanimous opinion, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit overturned a federal court ruling that the inmates’ portion of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act violates the constitutional ban on government establishment of religion. The decision came only a month after a Sixth Circuit panel ruled the prisoners’ section of RLUIPA constitutes an establishment of religion.

The latest ruling gives RLIUPA a 3-1 advantage at the federal appeals court level. The Seventh and Ninth circuits have ruled RLUIPA does not violate the establishment clause but accommodates the religious rights of prisoners. If the full Sixth Circuit does not overrule its panel, it would increase the potential for the Supreme Court to rule on the law. In November, the high court declined to hear an appeal of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion.

The Sixth Circuit relied partly upon the federal judge’s ruling in the Fourth Circuit case in its opinion striking down RLUIPA. In his January opinion, federal Judge James Turk of Roanoke, Va., ruled RLUIPA promoted religion unconstitutionally by providing greater protection to religious rights than to other basic rights.

Ira Madison, an inmate in a Virginia prison, sued the state and the department of corrections when department administrators refused his request for a kosher diet. Since 2000, Madison has declared his membership in the Church of God and Saints of Christ in Suffolk, Va. The church’s members, who say they follow God but do not worship Jesus, keep the Old Testament’s dietary laws, which prohibit pork and other foods.

The Fourth Circuit’s Dec. 8 opinion overturning Turk’s ruling, however, said the establishment clause “does not mandate that when Congress relieves the burdens of regulation on one fundamental right, that it must similarly reduce government burdens on all other rights.”

Congress “has not sponsored religion or become actively involved in religious activity, and RLUIPA in no way is attempting to indoctrinate prisoners in any particular belief or to advance religion in general in the prisons,” Fourth Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote for the panel. “Congress has simply lifted government burdens on religious exercise and thereby facilitated free exercise of religion for those who wish to practice their faiths.”

To find an establishment clause violation in this case “would severely undermine the ability of our society to accommodate the most basic rights of conscience and belief in neutral yet constructive ways,” Wilkinson wrote.

While there have been conflicting appellate decisions on the prisoners section of RLUIPA, the first federal court opinion against the land-use provision in the law came in June, when Judge Stephen Wilson of California ruled RLUIPA exceeded congressional authority. Wilson rejected Elsinore Christian Center’s claim under the law against the city of Lake Elsinore, Calif., which refused to grant a permit for the church to purchase a downtown building.

RLUIPA, signed by President Clinton in September 2000, bans 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 if it can demonstrate it has a compelling interest and is using the least restrictive means to advance that interest.

Congress passed RLUIPA after the more expansive Religious Freedom Restoration Act was invalidated by the Supreme Court. In approving the measure, Congress — with the support of a diverse coalition of organizations, including the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission — sought to address two of the areas in which government most commonly inhibits religious free exercise.

The Fourth Circuit, which is based in Richmond, Va., consists of federal courts in Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Federal courts in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan make up the Sixth Circuit, which is based in Cincinnati.

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