Inmates lose a remedy for religion-rights violations

Thursday, April 21, 2011

WASHINGTON — Prison inmates may be left without an effective remedy for violations of their religious freedom as a result of a Supreme Court ruling yesterday, civil rights advocates say.

The Court ruled in Sossamon v. Texas that states may not be sued for money damages under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a 2000 federal law aimed in part at protecting the First Amendment right of prisoners to practice their religion.

The ruling still allows inmates to win injunctions that would stop or change policies that impinge on religious freedom. But critics say that without the possibility of monetary damages, states will have little incentive to change their ways or punish officials for their actions. Critics argue that without damages it will be easy for states to avoid the scrutiny of courts by transferring or releasing prisoners or by slightly modifying policies to make cases moot.

“The ability to freely practice the religion of one’s choice is a fundamental constitutional right and not one that is taken away just because you are incarcerated,” said Steve Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Today’s decision will too often leave state prisoners without any remedy for serious violations of their religious rights. And prison policies that violate religious rights will in many cases escape judicial review entirely.”

J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, also criticized the decisions. “We are disappointed in the majority’s pinched view of what was a clear congressional intent to provide prisoners broad protection for religious liberty and a robust remedy for its violation, including monetary damages.”

The 6-2 ruling came in the case of Texas inmate Harvey Sossamon III, who claimed that prison policies illegally kept him from attending religious services, or worshiping in the prison chapel, while he was under disciplinary restrictions. He filed suit under RLUIPA, which states that inmates may seek “appropriate relief” when they challenge undue burdens on religious freedom imposed by state institutions that receive federal funds. At both the trial court and appeals court level, Sossamon’s suit was dismissed.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, upheld the lower court judgments, asserting that when states receive federal funds for prisons, they do not waive their sovereign immunity from suits for money damages. Stressing the importance of state sovereignty and “dignity,” Thomas said Congress cannot impose damages lawsuits against states without doing so explicitly. The phrase “appropriate relief,” in Thomas’s view, is “open-ended and ambiguous” and “is not the unequivocal expression of state consent that our precedents require.”

When multiple interpretations are possible, Thomas said, he would not pick the one that invades state sovereignty.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer. In her view, the availability of money damages is “self-evident” under Court precedents. She also said that excluding money damages “severely undermines” the intent of Congress in passing the law to protect religious exercise as much as possible.

Former Texas solicitor general James Ho, who argued and won the case for Texas, disputed the claim that the ruling would weaken protection for religious rights. He said states would be quicker to fix allegedly flawed prison policies if they didn’t have to litigate over money damages.

Ho also applauded the decision as a victory for openness because it requires Congress to be unambiguous when it passes laws affecting states. “It is a welcome and timely reminder by a broad majority of the Court that Congress must speak clearly and not hide the ball when it comes to abrogating state sovereignty,” said Ho.

Justice Elena Kagan recused herself in the case because of her earlier involvement as solicitor general.

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