Conservatives and Liberals Join Hands to Protect Prisoners' Rights to Religion

Over 50 Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindi and Muslim organizations joined hands to protect a federal law that allows prisoners the freedom to worship. Under the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the fifty religious groups submitted a friend of the court brief with the United States Supreme Court in the Cutter v. Wilkinson case, Dec. 20, 2004.

The brief argues that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law requiring federally funded state prisons to reasonably accommodate inmates’ religious practices, is constitutional. Specifically, the brief states that the RLUIPA, which was signed into law by President Clinton in 2000, does not violate the first amendment establishment clause separating church and state.

The Cutter v. Wilkinson case began when a handful of Ohio prisoners asserted the state corrections rules deny them access to religious material and opportunity to perform religious services. One of the prisoners, John Cutter, is an avowed Satanist; other prisoners include an “ordained minister” of a white supremacist group and a follower of Asatru – a polytheistic religion originating with the Vikings, according to Baptist Press.

The Sixth Circuit became the only one of five federal appeals courts to invalidate RLUIPA on the basis that the law violates the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion; the case is currently on appeal from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

While the coalition’s brief does not take a position on the specific facts of the case, it defends the constitutionality of the RLUIPA on the high court’s three-part Lemon test, according to BP. The three part test, which has guided the Supreme court’s decisions in establishment clause cases since 1971, specifies that a law is constitutional if it: has a secular purpose, does not promote religion primarily, and does not establish excessive entanglement with religion.

RLUIPA "does not invest religious prisoners with absolute rights," the brief says. "Instead, it provides a means to account for the interests of others who might be impacted by a particular religious practice. In many, if not most, RLUIPA cases, the requested accommodation will not impose any harm at all on other prisoners, guards or other third parties."

"The issue in Cutter is much bigger than RLUIPA-it's about whether government can pass any law that specially accommodates religious exercise," said Becket Fund President and General Counsel Anthony R. Picarello, Jr. "The Court's decision will affect what are literally thousands of accommodations for religion only--a tradition dating back to at least the Founding--contained in federal, state, and local laws nationwide. Little wonder that such an astonishingly diverse coalition of religious and civil rights groups has stood up in defense of the law."

According to Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission (ELRC), upholding the RLUIPA is essential for the future of religious America.

"One vital thing that history and our Baptist heritage have taught us is that it is lethally dangerous to allow governments to discriminate against religion and among religions," said Land to the SBC’s Baptist Press. The ELRC is among the fifty-plus organizations that signed the brief. "To protect religious freedom and freedom of conscience for all, we must oppose any government's effort to discriminate among religions when it attempts to deem some acceptable and others unacceptable.

"We must always remember that what we allow the government to do to Jehovah's Witnesses or Hare Krishnas today, they may well attempt to do to us and other faiths in the future. We would do well to remember that when we are irritated by Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on our door or Hare Krishnas impeding our progress at airports," Land said. "RLUIPA continues to stand as a strong defense of the soul liberty that we as Baptists and as Americans believe is the God-given right of every human being."

According to the Becket Fund, the fifty organizations “represent almost every major faith group in America, spanning the full spectrum of religious diversity…the coalition includes liberals and conservatives, religious and nonreligious alike.”

"Though the Coalition includes members who often find themselves on opposite sides of Establishment Clause issues, they speak with one voice in the conviction that accommodating religious exercise by removing government-imposed substantial burdens on religious exercise is an essential element of a democratic society," the brief notes.

Among the nearly 60 organizations signing onto the brief as part of the coalition were the Baptist Joint Committee, American Center for Law and Justice, Anti-Defamation League, National Council of Churches, Christian Legal Society, People for the American Way, Liberty Counsel, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Prison Fellowship and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Oral argument in the case will likely be in March.