ACLU Applauds Supreme Court Ruling Protecting Religious Liberty in Prisons

May 31, 2005 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today applauded an unusual unanimous vote by the Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of a federal law that requires states to allow prisoners to practice their religious beliefs.

“Prison officials often place unjustified burdens on prisoners who wish to practice their religion,” said Elizabeth Alexander, Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. “This important law allows prisoners to challenge such arbitrary burdens, and we welcome this decision upholding its constitutionality.”

In the ruling today, the Justices unanimously sided with Ohio prisoners who had been denied access to religious items and literature, as well as time to worship. The prisoners filed a legal challenge against Reginald Wilkinson, Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, stating that the prison department was in violation of federal law.

The federal law at issue, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), requires in part that states that receive federal money must accommodate prisoners’ religious beliefs unless prison officials can show that such accommodation would be disruptive.

Today’s decision struck down a ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that RLUIPA violated the separation of church and state. However, as the ACLU argued in its brief, the federal law mandates nothing more than the removal of substantial government-imposed burdens on religious exercise. The ACLU said that RLUIPA avoids constitutional scrutiny by not giving prisoners and other institutionalized persons incentives to become religious or to change their religious beliefs or practices.

“It is wrong to punish prisoners by denying them their religious liberty,” said Alexander. “We urge the states to fully implement RLUIPA’s requirements.”

The case decided today is Cutter v. Wilkinson.

For a copy of the decision, go to:

For a copy of the ACLU’s brief, go to: /node/36325.

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