Supreme Court sides with Texas in case involving prisoner’s rights

April 20, 2011

WASHINGTON (ABP) – The United States Supreme Court ruled April 20
that a federal law protecting the religious liberty of prison inmates
does not entitle a prisoner to monetary damages if that right is denied.

Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious
Liberty criticized the 6-2 decision as a “pinched view” of the clear
intent of Congress when it passed the Religious Land Use and
Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

The Baptist Joint
Committee, which 11 years ago led a coalition that championed the
federal law designed to protect the religious freedom of prisoners and
in zoning and landmark laws, filed a brief
in the case supporting Texas inmate Harvey Sossaman, who due to
disciplinary confinement was not permitted to leave his cell to attend
worship services.

The BJC brief, filed with other groups
including the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for
Separation of Church and State and the Interfaith Alliance, argued that a
part of the law empowering prisoners to seek “appropriate relief” meant
both injunctive and monetary remedies.

Writing for the Supreme Court majority, however, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas ruled
that lacking an “unequivocal declaration” in the law that states were
intended to be subject to monetary damages, by the simple act of
accepting federal funds Texas did not waive its “sovereign immunity,” a
legal doctrine that says a government cannot be sued without its own
consent.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Stephen
Breyer, filed a dissenting opinion saying that excluding a legal right
to damages “severely undermines the broad protections of religious
exercise” intended by Congress.

Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case, Sossaman v. Texas.

The RLUIPA was a second attempt by Congress to protect religious rights
of prisoners. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, adopted in 1993 to
prevent laws that substantially burden a person’s right to religious
exercise, was ruled unconstitutional in 1997 when the Supreme Court
declared Congress had a right to enforce the law at the federal level
but not upon the states.

Sossaman was among several prisoners
denied permission to attend religious services but allowed to leave
their cells for other purposes, such as educational classes and to use
the library. He was also among prisoners denied permission to use the
prison chapel for religious services, even though inmates were allowed
to use it for non-religious purposes.

Sossaman sued the state
of Texas for violating the federal law barring governments from imposing
“a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in
or confined to an institution” unless the burden is “the least
restrictive means” of furthering “a compelling governmental interest.”

A district court dismissed the lawsuit, citing the state’s sovereign
immunity. The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision,
finding that Texas did not waive its sovereign immunity in exchange for
federal funds.

In its friend-of-the-court brief, the Baptist
Joint Committee and seven other organizations said monetary relief is
“essential to RLUIPA’s purpose of deterring pervasive and unjustified
burdens on religious exercise.”

“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,” said Walker,
executive director of the Washington-based BJC.