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The Freedom of Religion in Prisons

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act protects inmates' religious practices

The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) says in part that no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of anyone confined to a federally-funded government institution, including prisons and jails. RLUIPA requires prisons to accommodate the religions practiced by inmates. The law allows governmental authorities to interfere with religious practices only if they can show a “compelling governmental interest.” Often, prison security and discipline have been found to be sufficient reasons to restrict inmates' religious practices.

In October 2004, the United States Supreme Court announced–to the surprise of many–that it would hear a case questioning the constitutionality of RLUIPA. The lawsuit does not involve a question of whether inmates have a right to practice religion; rather, it contends that the law has amounted to an unconstitutional establishment or promotion of religion. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are state prisoners who practice unconventional religions or Satanism. They claim that they were impermissibly denied access to their desired religious literature and services. A federal court of appeals agreed with the state's argument that RLUIPA is unconstitutional because it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Specifically, the court of appeals found that RLUIPA endorsed religion by encouraging inmates to practice religion so they could enjoy greater rights. The Supreme Court agreed to consider the case because other federal courts have reached opposing conclusions. The much-awaited decision is expected sometime in 2005.

Some civil rights groups predict that the outcome of the case may have far-reaching implications for government accommodation of religion in America, not just in prisons. It is argued that RLUIPA only concerns the protection of the freedom to practice a sincerely chosen religion.

Copyright 2014 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

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