Religious Liberty in the Criminal Justice System
As the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear in Turner v. Safley, “prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” That is, while prison may involve the loss of many freedoms, it is not a license for the government to deny fundamental religious rights.
The particular vulnerability of people in prison is the very reason Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000. RLUIPA requires any substantial burden on a prisoner’s religious exercise to be the “least restrictive means” of furthering a compelling governmental interest. This does not just mean that the requirements of the law itself have to be as permissive as possible—it also means that there has to be a very good reason why the prison will not allow exceptions for individual prisoners.
Yet time and again, we see that prison officials are oblivious or indifferent to these high standards, arbitrarily restricting prisoners’ fundamental rights. Ironically, accommodating individual religious practice actually tends to enhance prison security because it has a positive effect on individual adjustment and rehabilitation and helps foster an environment where prisoners do not feel as if decisions are unreasonable.
The ACLU defends the rights of all individuals—no matter how marginalized—to practice their faith to the fullest extent of the Constitution and laws of this country.