May 2005 Church & State | People & Events

A federal law designed to protect religious freedom reached the U.S. Supreme Court March 21, and legal observers are cautiously optimistic that the statute will survive high court review.

The justices heard oral arguments in a case challenging the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a law that prohibits government from limiting prisoners’ religious freedom in federally funded institutions without first showing a compelling reason.

Prison officials in Ohio challenged the law, arguing that it makes it difficult to meet security needs.

David Goldberger, a Columbus, Ohio, lawyer representing several inmates of non-traditional faiths, asserted that the law respects the prison officials’ need to implement legitimate security measures. But prisons, he said, should not be permitted to ignore inmates’ religious liberty needs without a compelling reason.

“There is a preference for accommodating mainstream religions as opposed to non-mainstream religions,” Gold\xadberger said. “It’s important for us to assure that religious groups of all stripes are accommodated.”

But Ohio State Solicitor Douglas Cole countered that in a prison’s “unique environment,” the law violates the Con\xadstitution because it advances religion.

Justice David H. Souter challenged that claim, asserting that the court has recognized a “sphere of accommodation,” government actions that may benefit religion without rising to the level of government endorsement.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor then challenged Cole, asking if freedom of religion cannot be applied in prison. Cole conceded that it is, but insisted that a different standard must be applied. Ohio, he said, objects to a broad rule that requires religion to be given special treatment.

U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement also argued on behalf of the law. Clement said RLUIPA does not require “blanket” recognition of all religions and said it merely requires prisons to make a “reasonable accommodation” to requests that are based on religion.

Advocacy groups from a wide range of perspectives filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the federal law. Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union backed RLUIPA, and so did the Becket Fund and the Rutherford Institute.

A decision in the case, Cutter v. Wil\xadkinson, is expected by the end of June.