Government accommodations of religious worship are not an unconstitutional form of favoritism.
In a major First Amendment decision acknowledging the power of Congress to safeguard religious liberty, the US Supreme Court Tuesday ruled 9 to 0 that religious accommodations do not violate the Constitution's prohibition of government endorsement of religion.
The high court's ruling upholds a federal law that requires state corrections officials to remove any unjustified burdens on the ability of prison inmates to worship.
The decision marks an important victory not only for religious inmates but for all minority religious groups in the United States that rely on such accommodations to freely practice their faith without government interference. A ruling that invalidated the federal law would have placed in question a wide range of religious accommodations and exemptions.
At issue before the court was whether special accommodations to facilitate worship by adherents of minority religions in prison violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Critics of the law - which is called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) - say that granting certain benefits to religious individuals that are not also granted to the nonreligious violates requirements that the government remain strictly neutral in matters of faith.
The court unanimously rejected this view. "Our decisions recognize that there is room for play in the joints between the two religion clauses of the First Amendment, some space for legislative action neither compelled by the Free Exercise Clause nor prohibited by the Establishment Clause," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in announcing the decision. RLUIPA "fits within the corridor between the two clauses."
Tuesday's ruling stems from a series of lawsuits filed by prison inmates in Ohio. The inmates - all adherents of nonmainstream religions such as Satanism and Wicca - complained that prison officials were refusing to permit them access to religious services, literature, and ceremonial items needed to practice their religions.
Corrections officials countered by saying that religious accommodations might undermine prison security and facilitate gang activities. They also questioned the constitutionality of RLUIPA, a federal law that requires prison officials to find the least restrictive means to accommodate worship in government institutions.
A federal judge rejected the state's constitutional challenge and upheld the law. But a panel of the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down as a violation of the separation of church and state.
Within the confines of a prison, any special privileges accorded to some inmates can create an incentive for other inmates to obtain the same privileges, the appeals court ruled. If those privileges flow from state efforts to grant special accommodations for religious worship in prison, then the government has created a strong incentive for inmates to become religious.
"The primary effect of RLUIPA is not simply to accommodate the exercise of religion by individual prisoners, but to advance religion generally by giving religious prisoners rights superior to those of nonreligious prisoners," the Sixth Circuit panel said.
Tuesday's Supreme Court opinion reverses the Sixth Circuit. Rather than being an impermissible establishment of religion, such accommodations and exemptions are an acceptable way to help guarantee the free exercise of faith, the justices say. "Were the court of appeals' view the correct reading of our decisions, all manner of religious accommodations would fall," Justice Ginsburg writes. "Congressional permission for members of the military to wear religious apparel while in uniform would fail."
The key, according to Ginsburg, is that RLUIPA strikes the proper balance between religious accommodation and other governmental interests. "We do not read RLUIPA to elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution's need to maintain order and safety," she writes. "Our decisions indicate that an accommodation must be measured so that it does not override other significant interests."
The high court noted that for the past decade, the federal Bureau of Prisons has managed the largest correctional system in the nation under the same religious accommodation requirements and standards as are required of Ohio under RLUIPA. It has been done without jeopardizing prison security, public safety, or the constitutional rights of other prisoners, the justices say.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas said he agreed with the ruling. But he added that in his view a "proper historical understanding of the [Establishment] Clause as a federalism provision leads to the same conclusion."
He says the First Amendment was aimed at preventing federal government interference in state establishments of religion - not to erect a wall separating church and state. "The view that the Establishment Clause precludes Congress from legislating respecting religion lacks historical provenance," he writes.
"Even when enacting laws that bind the states pursuant to valid exercises of its enumerated powers, Congress need not observe strict separation between church and state, or steer clear of the subject of religion," he says. "It need only refrain from making laws 'respecting an establishment of religion'; it must not interfere with a state establishment of religion."
• Linda Feldmann contributed to this report.