Before high court: law that allows for religious rights

The justices will consider to what extent certain prisoners can practice religion.

A lawsuit by a group of prison inmates in Ohio is raising the difficult question of when the government's accommodation of religious beliefs may go too far.

At issue in the case set for oral argument at the US Supreme Court Monday is whether the granting of religious exemptions from certain laws or regulations when they clash with religious beliefs amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by government. The case is particularly significant for minority religions and their adherents who rely on such accommodations to practice their faith freely without government interference.

Lawyers for the inmates warn that if the high court embraces Ohio's approach, it will invalidate such longstanding religious accommodations as the exemption from military service for religious conscientious objectors. It could also bar paid chaplains from prisons and could force mandatory medical regulations upon those who rely on prayer alone for their healthcare.

Lawyers for Ohio say they are not seeking such sweeping change. Their argument applies only to a prison setting, they say.

At the center of the case is the constitutionality of a 2000 federal law - the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act - which requires state and local governments to accommodate the religious exercise of anyone housed in a government institution, including state prisons.

The Ohio inmates who filed suit are followers of the Wiccan faith, Satanism, Odinism, and The Church of Jesus Christ Christian. The inmates say prison officials refuse to permit them access to books, ceremonial items, and other accommodations that they say are essential to their worship.

Ohio prison officials say the worship services are a ruse used to plan and carry out prison gang activity, jeopardizing security. They argue that the federal law, RLUIPA, is an unconstitutional endorsement of the religions of certain inmates that tramples upon the state's authority to determine how best to run its prisons.

"RLUIPA is far more than an accommodation," says Ohio Solicitor Douglas Cole in his brief to the court. "It is a powerful tool that prisoners advancing religious claims can use to obtain accommodations."

David Goldberger, an Ohio State University law professor who is representing the inmates, says the law is aimed at helping religious individuals overcome government-imposed burdens so they may be left alone to practice their faith better.

"Because RLUIPA is confined to lifting burdens on religious exercise, it does not involve the government in religious exercise, give benefits to religion, or prefer one religion over another," he says in his brief.

The case resides at the intersection of two competing clauses within the First Amendment. The amendment guarantees freedom of religion, while at the same time barring government from acting in a way that promotes religion.

Thus, the justices must decide to what extent there is room between the Establishment Clause - which bars government endorsement of religion - and the Free Exercise Clause - which prevents government interference in matters of faith.

Legal analysts say that if the court were to rule broadly that religious exemptions amount to an unconstitutional benefit to religion by government, it could end every religious accommodation that is not twinned with a similar secular one.

Mr. Cole says Ohio is not attacking all accommodations, just those in prison triggered by the federal law. "We believe that prison presents a unique environment," he says. "Virtually all the people in prison are looking for ways to evade the rules."

RLUIPA offers inmates a means to achieve a level of rights superior to those of nonreligious inmates, he says. For example, religious inmates are permitted to meet together to worship. Nonreligious inmates are offered no similar meeting time.

Such apparent favoritism creates a strong incentive for inmates to become religious, Cole says, which violates the constitutional mandate that government avoid any endorsement of religion over irreligion.

Cole says that Ohio remains bound by the dictates of the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause, but that RLUIPA strikes the wrong balance in instances involving certain violent inmates. "We believe in balancing the concerns for religion against the concerns for safety," Cole says.

Lawyers for the inmates deny that the requested accommodations are a ruse to plan and carry out violent criminal activity behind bars. They say the federal law empowers state officials to protect prison security when such steps are necessary.

"The act is flexible because it does not require religious exercise to be automatically accommodated," Mr. Goldberger says in his brief. "RLUIPA only requires accommodation on a case-by-case basis when a burden on religion is substantial."

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