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Supreme Court Upholds Inmates' Religious Rights

Justices rule in favor of a witch, a Satanist and other Ohio prisoners who say the state refused to accommodate their beliefs and practices.

June 01, 2005|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court sided with a witch, a Satanist and a racial separatist Tuesday, upholding a federal law requiring state prisons to accommodate the religious affiliations of inmates.

The three Ohio prisoners and others sued under the 2000 federal law, claiming they were denied access to religious literature and ceremonial items, and denied time to worship.

The law says states that receive federal money must accommodate prisoners' religious beliefs, with such things as special haircuts or meals, unless wardens can show that the government has a compelling reason not to.

The court's unanimous ruling addressed a narrow issue: whether the law as written is an unconstitutional government promotion of religion. It is not, justices decided, leaving the door open to future legal challenges on other grounds.

"Religion plays a vital role in rehabilitation," said Derek Gaubatz, director of litigation for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a law firm that represents inmates.

Many states have contested the law on grounds that inmate requests could make it harder to manage prisons, and the court appeared concerned as well.

The law "does not elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution's need to maintain order and safety," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said from the bench in announcing the decision.

Ginsburg said judges who handled inmate cases should give deference to prison administrators.

"I think this was a net win for the prisons," said Marci Hamilton, a church-state scholar at Cardoza School of Law.

Douglas Cole, Ohio's solicitor, said the ruling could inspire more inmate demands.

However, he said, "we're encouraged that the court recognized that these inmate religious practices can pose significant safety concerns for prison administrators."

Tuesday's decision overturns a ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, which had struck down part of the law, called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, on grounds it violated the separation of church and state.

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