Supreme Court upholds prisoners' religious-rights law
The Supreme Court sided with a Wiccan, a satanist and a racial separatist yesterday, upholding a federal law requiring state prisons to...
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court sided with a Wiccan, a satanist and a racial separatist yesterday, upholding a federal law requiring state prisons to accommodate the religious affiliations of inmates.
The three Ohio prisoners and others sued under the 2000 federal law, claiming they were denied access to religious literature and ceremonial items and denied time to worship. The law says states that receive federal money must accommodate prisoners' religious beliefs unless wardens can show that the government has a compelling reason not to.
Ohio argued that the law amounted to unconstitutional official favoritism for religion, because it creates incentives for inmates to profess a religious belief so they may receive special food or other privileges unavailable to other inmates.
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court, said that Ohio's interpretation would sweep too broadly, prohibiting even such congressionally mandated religious accommodations as a law that permits Jewish members of the military to wear yarmulkes while on duty.
The court's unanimous ruling addressed a narrow issue: whether the law as written is an unconstitutional government promotion of religion. It is not, justices decided, leaving the door open to future legal challenges on other grounds.
"Religion plays a vital role in rehabilitation," said Derek Gaubatz, director of litigation for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious-liberty law firm that represents inmates.
Many states have contested the law on grounds that inmate requests could make it harder to manage prisons, and the court appeared concerned as well.
The law "does not elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution's need to maintain order and safety," Ginsburg said from the bench in announcing the decision. She said judges who handle inmate cases should give deference to prison administrators.
"I think this was a net win for the prisons," said Marci Hamilton, a church-state scholar at Cardoza School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City.
Douglas Cole, Ohio's solicitor, said the ruling could inspire more inmate demands. However, he said, "we're encouraged that the court recognized that these inmate religious practices can pose significant safety concerns for prison administrators."
Yesterday's decision overturned a ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, which had struck down part of the law, called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, on grounds that it violated the separation of church and state.
Ohio will likely continue its challenge to the law, Cole said.
Elizabeth Cooke, a clinical-law professor at Ohio State University who represented inmates in the court case, said they will press ahead with accommodation requests, including a five-point star for the Wiccan and hammer charms for prisoners who are members of Asatru and worship old Norse deities.
The racial separatist is an ordained minister of the Christian Identity Church.
The case is Cutter v. Wilkinson, 03-9877.
In other cases yesterday:
Death penalty: The court agreed to consider reinstating a death-penalty law that requires juries to sentence a defendant to die — rather than serve life in prison — when the evidence for and against imposing death appears equal.
Johnnie Cochran: The justices voted 7-2 to lift an injunction that kept a disgruntled former client of defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran from picketing outside Cochran's office.
Agriculture programs: The court ordered lower courts to reconsider challenges to federal programs that promote milk and pork and a Louisiana program for alligator products in light of last week's ruling in a beef-marketing case.
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.
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