Sixth Circuit Denies Provision for Prisoner’s Religious Rights

( [email protected] ) Nov 15, 2003 10:32 AM EST

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the three-year-old law securing prisoner’s religious rights as unconstitutional. The three judge panel of the Cincinnati based court ruled out the “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act” as contrary to the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion.

In the Sixth Circuit's decision on prisoner rights, Judge Ronald Lee Gilman wrote in the panel's opinion that RLUIPA "has the effect of impermissibly advancing religion by giving greater protection to religious rights than to other constitutionally protected rights."

The law not only sends a message of endorsement of religion, Gilman wrote, but it "also has the effect of encouraging prisoners to become religious in order to enjoy greater rights. One effect of RLUIPA is to induce prisoners to adopt or feign religious belief in order to receive the statute's benefits."

The plaintiffs in the case are Ohio prisoners who assert unconventional religious beliefs. Miler and other co-plaintiffs follow “Asatru,” a polytheistic religion that originated with the Vivkings. John Cutter is an avowed Satanist. Such prisoners assert that the Ohio prison regulations deny them access to religious literature and the opportunity to conduct their own religious services.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections however, argued that the prison gangs use the RLUIPA permits to use religion as a means to "insulate their illicit activities from scrutiny.”

Supporters of the law rejected the decision and the panel's reasoning.

The panel's reliance on the establishment clause is "an engraved invitation to reversal," said Anthony Picarello, Becket Fund vice president.

The panel "relied on two district court opinions, one of which the court acknowledged has already been overruled by the Seventh Circuit, and another, in the Fourth Circuit, that is very likely to be overturned soon," Picarello said in a written statement. "This same line of reasoning has been adopted by one -- and only one -- sitting justice of the Supreme Court and by a very small cadre of legal academics."

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.

The Seventh and Ninth circuits have ruled RLUIPA does not violate the establishment clause but accommodates the religious rights of prisoners. If the full Sixth Circuit does not overrule its panel, it would increase the potential for the Supreme Court to rule on the law. In November, the high court declined to hear an appeal of the Ninth Circuit's opinion.

Congress passed RLUIPA after the Supreme Court invalidated the more expansive Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In approving the measure, Congress 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.