Federal Religious Liberty Act Violates Constitution, Says Court

A federal appeals court ruled in November that a U.S. law intended to bolster the religious liberty rights of prison inmates violates the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.

In a Nov. 7 decision, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found part of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) unconstitutional because "it has the primary effect of advancing religion." RLUIPA's effect, said the court, "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."

A group of prisoners had sued the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections arguing that their religious beliefs and practices are not being accommodated as the law requires.

The 6th Circuit's Cutter v. Wilkinson ruling runs counter to several other federal court decisions upholding RLUIPA. Because there is conflict among the federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court may be forced to intervene.

Congress passed RLUIPA in 2000 after the Supreme Court struck down a similar law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The new law provides that no "government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution" unless the burden "is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest" and is the "least restrictive means" of advancing that interest.

While the 6th Circuit struck down the provision of the law protecting prisoners, the decision does not affect a separate provision granting religious groups greater protections in state and local zoning disputes.