Appeals Court Upholds Religious Liberty Law For Prisoners

A federal appeals court has ruled that a federal law intended to protect the religious liberty rights of prisoners does not violate the First Amendment.

On Dec. 8, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) does not unconstitutionally favor religion.

Ira Madison, a Virginia convict, sued Virginia's Department of Corrections for denying him kosher meals in prison. Madison, a convert to Judaism, argued that corrections officials had subverted the portion of RLUIPA that prohibits government from placing substantial burdens on prisoners' exercise of their religious belief. RLUIPA applies to all prisoners in institutions that receive federal funding, which includes all Virginia state prisons.

Virginia officials argued that RLUIPA violated the First Amendment by providing greater protection to inmates' religious liberty rights than other fundamental rights, such as free speech rights.

The 4th Circuit, however, ruled in Madison v. R. Riter that RLUIPA did not advance religion, but only lifted burdens from inmates trying to practicing their religions under prison regulations.

"It was reasonable for Congress to seek to reduce the burdens on religious exercise for inmates without, simultaneously enhancing, say, an inmate's First Amendment rights to pornography," Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote for the unanimous court. "Free exercise and other First Amendment rights may be equally burdened by prison regulations, but the Constitution itself provides religious exercise with specific safeguards."