By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 5/31/2005 3:12:16 PM ET 2005-05-31T19:12:16

The Supreme Court sided Tuesday with an unusual alliance of the Bush administration, liberal activists and conservative religious groups, agreeing that state prisons must accommodate the beliefs of witches, Satanists and other followers of non-mainstream religions.

The justices agreed unanimously with inmates in Ohio who complained that they were denied access to religious literature and the opportunity to conduct services. Ohio prison officials had argued that the inmates’ requests hampered their ability to manage prisons.

The court overturned a ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Cincinnati, which struck down part of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 as an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. The act says states that receive federal money for their prison systems should not “impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution” unless they can show a  compelling reason.

Three other federal appeals courts had upheld the law; Ohio joined the plaintiffs in asking the Supreme Court to resolve the conflict.

Backing for religious freedom
The ruling Tuesday solidifies a campaign by numerous politically diverse groups — from the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State to the American Center for Law and Justice and the U.S. Justice Department — to limit government restrictions on religious expression.

Ohio argued that the law served as an impermissible endorsement of religion in violation of the First Amendment because it effectively made religious inmates a special class. Supporters of the law argued that mainstream religious beliefs were already accommodated in prisons and said it simply extended the same protection to unconventional faiths.

Supreme Court justices

In the court’s 27-page opinion in Cutter vs. Wilkinson, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with supporters of the law that under Ohio’s interpretation of the First Amendment, all religious expression could be banned in prisons and, by extension, in any forum where government officials could claim that they had a good reason to do so. “Were the Court of Appeals’ the correct reading of our decisions,” Ginsburg wrote, “all manner of religious accommodations would fall.”

Supporters warned that that would be an open invitation to religious discrimination in schools, military units, government offices and social services.

Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, who served as co-counsel in the case, said in a statement Tuesday that the decision “further reinforces the idea that removing government imposed burdens to religious practice is not unconstitutional will have wide impact, and not just in prisons.”

The decision does not grant blanket freedom to prisoners to do whatever they want, however. States have a “compelling governmental interest” to maintain order and security, Ginsburg wrote, but the accommodations sought under the act did not constitute a significant hardship on wardens. Such challenges could be decided on a case-by-case basis, she added.

“We have no cause to believe that [the act] would not be applied in an appropriately balanced way,” she wrote, noting that the Federal Bureau of Prisons had operated under the law with no apparent problem since 2000.

Unusual beliefs protected
Several justices had questioned during oral arguments in March whether the act gave prisoners an incentive to proclaim an unusual faith to lessen the burdens of their incarceration, as Ohio officials argued.

“If you can find some religious group that espouses drinking beer every day or other alcoholic beverages or taking certain amounts of marijuana ... there’s a real incentive here to ‘get religion,’” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said.

But Ginsburg wrote that “while some accommodations of religious observance, notably the opportunity to assemble in worship services, might attract joiners seeking a break in their closely guarded day, we doubt that all accommodations would be perceived as ‘benefits.’”

Justices also appeared to be swayed by the voluntary nature of the act, which is mandatory only if states accept federal funding for their prison systems. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion that if Ohio wanted to avoid the restrictions, it could reject the federal money, which the prison systems of all 50 states accept.

Otherwise, prison officials must make accommodations for sincere followers of a religious faith, no matter how odd, the court found. The five plaintiffs in the Ohio case, for example, were two followers of Asatru, a polytheistic Viking religion that reveres Thor; a minister of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, which preaches racial separatism; a Wiccan witch; and a Satanist.

Other courts have found that the act already protected most mainstream religious practices, including inmates’ right to receive religious texts, Muslims’ right to not be forced to eat pork, Catholics’ right to wear a crucifix, Christians’ right to receive communion wine and Jewish prisoners’ right to keep kosher.

The decision Tuesday “is a win for religious exercise in prison, but more importantly, it is a thumping victory for religion-only accommodations nationwide,” said Anthony Picarello, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a brief supporting the law on behalf of dozens of denominations and civil rights organizations.

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