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Supreme Court to hear case on RLUIPA religious rights law

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide the legality of a four-year-old federal law that protects the religious rights of prisoners.

The high court announced Oct. 12 it would review a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) violates the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion. The justices will determine whether the section on prisoners’ rights is constitutional.

Oral arguments in the case, which is Cutter v. Wilkinson, will not occur before January.

In accepting the case out of the Sixth Circuit, the Supreme Court agreed to review the only one of four appellate decisions to go against RLUIPA. The Fourth, Seventh and Ninth circuits have upheld the prisoner provision in the law.

The case involves some Ohio prisoners who hold unconventional religious beliefs. They assert that state corrections rules denying them access to religious literature and the opportunity to conduct religious services violate RLUIPA and the Ohio Constitution. 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.

In the Sixth Circuit decision in November 2003, Ronald Lee Gilman wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel that RLUIPA “has the effect of impermissibly advancing religion by giving greater protection to religious rights than to other constitutionally protected rights.” The law “also has the effect of encouraging prisoners to become religious in order to enjoy greater rights,” Gilman wrote.

“One effect of RLUIPA is to induce prisoners to adopt or feign religious belief in order to receive the statute’s benefits,” he asserted.

A RLUIPA advocate said the Cutter case “is much bigger than RLUIPA.”

“The court’s decision 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,” Anthony Picarello, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a written statement. “The accommodations range from the U.S. military’s allowing Jews in the armed forces to wear yarmulkes to Ohio’s own exemption of minors from underage drinking laws for religious purposes.”

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

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