Quick look at Cutter v. Wilkinson

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Case name: Cutter v. Wilkinson, 03-9877.

Background: The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act forbids government from burdening religious exercises of prisoners except to further “a compelling governmental interest.” A group of Ohio inmates who belong to “non-mainstream” religions filed suit under the law, claiming prison officials violated the law by restricting their dress and ceremonies and by not providing chaplains of their faith. Ohio responded by seeking to overturn the law on the grounds that it improperly advanced religion in violation of the establishment clause. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and struck down the law.

Ruling: The statute qualifies as a permissible accommodation of religion that is not barred by the establishment clause.

Verbatim: “Our decisions recognize that “there is room for play in the joints” between the Clauses… some space for legislative action neither compelled by the Free Exercise Clause nor prohibited by the Establishment Clause. We hold that §3 of RLUIPA fits within the corridor between the Religion clauses: On its face, the Act qualifies as a permissible legislative accommodation of religion that is not barred by the Establishment Clause.”

Lineup: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for a unanimous court. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a separate concurrence.

First Amendment impact: After striking down Congress' first effort to legislate in this area, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Court has determined that Congress struck the right balance in RLUIPA by accommodating religious practices, but still permitting government to trump religious interests if it has a compelling reason to do so. Interestingly, in a footnote, Ginsburg says she decided the case on grounds other than Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Court's classic — but much-criticized — test for establishment-clause violations.

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