In a great victory for religious liberty, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that protects prisoners' access to religious materials and programs. In Cutter v. Wilkinson, Justice Ginsburg, writing for the entire Court, found that RLUIPA was constitutional "because it alleviates exceptional government-created burdens on private religious exercise."

The Court overturned a Sixth Circuit decision that held that RLUIPA gave religious prisoners "a preferred status in the prison community" and "has the effect of encouraging prisoners to become religious in order to enjoy greater rights." The Court dismissed this reasoning with a curt statement that, "Were the Court of Appeals's view the correct reading of our decisions, all manner of religious accommodations would fall."

Justice Thomas joined in the Court's opinion, and also issued a concurring opinion setting out a clear defense of Congress's authority to defend religious practice. "History, at least that presented by Ohio, does not show that the Establishment Clause hermetically seals the federal government out of the field of religion." He cited Philip Hamburger's book, Separation of Church and State, "The Clause prohibits Congress from enacting legislation respecting an establishment of religion; it does not prohibit Congress from enacting legislation respecting religion or taking cognizance of religion."

As with many cases that are heard by the high court, the facts in Cutter did not make an attractive case for supporters of religious liberty. The plaintiffs are Ohio prisoners who hold unconventional religious beliefs. Some of them are followers of Asatru, a polytheistic religion that originated with the Vikings, and includes Thor as one of its gods. Another plaintiff is an ordained minister of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, which espouses a belief that the races should be separated. Another is a practicing witch, and John Cutter is an avowed Satanist.

Despite the unconventional nature of the plaintiffs' beliefs, we defended their right to practice their religion, even if we do not share those beliefs. A fundamental principle of the American system is that government can, and must, permit the expression of beliefs and faith—including those that are offensive to us—while remaining neutral on the validity or appropriateness of those beliefs. This principle was so important that the founders of our Republic placed it first in our Bill of Rights.

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The Court's decision is a tremendous victory for those who work to transform the lives of inmates through faith. Job training and education alone won't transform an inmate from a criminal into a law-abiding citizen. For some inmates, such programs merely make them smarter, more sophisticated criminals. Justice Fellowship and Prison Fellowship have worked very hard to protect access of inmates to religious activities and programs. We worked hard to pass RLUIPA and signed an amicus brief filed in support of RLUIPA by the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion.

Most people assume that faith is encouraged in prison. I certainly thought so when I was in the legislature. Yet, when I was incarcerated, I found the opposite was true. Some prisons restrict inmates' access to Bibles, or prohibit inmates from having concordances or biblical commentaries. Others prohibit inmates from wearing small crosses or yarmulkes, or limit inmates to participating in only one religious program a week, forcing them to choose between Bible study and worship services. While many prison officials are supportive of religious programs in their prisons, others view it as extra work, and often raise bureaucratic roadblocks to discourage religious volunteers.

Even with the protections of RLUIPA, prisoners are still at the mercy of corrections officials to allow them to practice their faith. By the time their claims are litigated, many of them will have been moved to other facilities or even been released, making their claims moot. However, the purpose of passing RLUIPA was not to create litigation, but instead to allow us to enter into a dialogue with prison officials to find ways that they can protect the safety and security of staff, inmates, and volunteers while accommodating the religious programs and practices that are so important to changing the lives of inmates.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty summed up the plight of inmates seeking to practice their faith: "Prisoners are at the mercy of prison guards and wardens in all aspects of their daily lives, including how and when (and even if) they worship, pray, or otherwise observe the precepts of their faith. This inevitably creates conflicts between the prisoner and the state, implicating issues of diet, sacramental observance, grooming, access to religious texts, and group assembly." Congress and the President enacted RLUIPA to ensure that prison authorities would allow prisoners to practice and grow in their faith while protecting safety and security.

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Our experience has shown that sincere religious convictions of prisoners can be appropriately accommodated without endangering safety and security in prisons, and without placing unworkable burdens on prison officials.

Pat Nolan is President of Justice Fellowship.

Related Elsewhere:

Justice Fellowship developed a handbook "Religion Behind Bars" to help wardens, chaplains, volunteers and inmates understand their rights and responsibilities under RLUIPA.

Syllabus of Cutter v. Wilkinson, the unanimous opinion of the court in Cutter v. Wilkinson, and Justice Thomas' concurring opinion in Cutter v. Wilkinson is available online.

The text of RLUIPA is available online:

Our earlier coverage of RLUIPA includes:

Supreme Court Unanimously Sides with Prisoners' Religious Rights | RLUIPA held to meet religious needs of the institutionalized. (June 1, 2005)
Court Affirms Rights of Inmates | Prison officials may not place "substantial burden" on religious exercise (February 2004)
Weblog: Judge Will Reconsider Decision on Church Land Use | Federal judge puts decision against religious land use act on hold (Aug. 12, 2003)
Federal Judge Rules Parts of Church Land-Use Law Unconstitutional | Groups plan to help Elsinore Christian Center appeal zoning case. (July 11, 2003)
No Religion-Based Zoning | Illinois Vineyard church wins right to worship in its own building (May 13, 2003)
Churches vs. Homeowners | Legal experts assess last week's appeals court decision that houses of worship may be "incompatible with a place of quiet seclusion." (Oct. 23, 2002)
Feds Intervene in Zoning Case | Elsinore Christian Center seeks to relocate into commercial zone (Oct, 3, 2001)
President Signs Religious-Liberty Bill | Law says government must again prove "compelling interest" to curb free exercise of religion in land use, prisons, and hospitals (Sept. 26, 2000)