Americans United Hails Unanimous Supreme Court Ruling Upholding Prisoners' Religious Freedom

Decision Upholds Federal Law Protecting Rights Of Minority Faiths, While Ensuring Prison Security, Says Church- State Watchdog Group

A unanimous Supreme Court ruling (PDF) handed down today is a welcome reaffirmation of religious liberty, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The court upheld the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that prohibits government from limiting prisoners' religious freedom without first showing a compelling reason. In the lawsuit, inmates from non-mainstream faiths challenged prison officials' refusal to accommodate their religious needs.

"This is a sensible decision that affirms the value of religious freedom while giving correctional institutions the ability to meet their security needs," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

Lynn noted that the decision in Cutter v. Wilkinson makes it clear that members of minority faiths enjoy First Amendment rights on the same basis as majority faiths.

"This decision reminds us that government must treat all religions equally," said Lynn. "The state cannot play favorites among religions."

Lynn said the government must make reasonable accommodations for the religious needs of incarcerated persons. These types of accommodations, Lynn pointed out, do not violate church-state separation because they do not adversely affect third parties and do not require the government to fund or promote religion.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in the opinion, "Should inmate requests for religious accommodations become excessive, impose unjustified burdens on other institutionalized persons, or jeopardize the effective functioning of an institution, the facility would be free to resist the imposition."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.