Smith v. Ward

RLUIPA allows prisoners to seek God 

The peaceful expression of religion is an important aspect of human culture, and can provide important and unique benefits for prisoners and society alike. Studies have shown that allowing prisoners to connect with their faith helps with rehabilitation, ensures that they can reintegrate into society when released, and reduces recidivism. For decades, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) has protected the religious freedom of inmates. It has enabled Jewish inmates to obey kosher diets, Catholics to access to important sacraments, and practitioners of many faiths to possess religious texts.

In 2015, the Supreme Court unanimously confirmed the importance of protecting prisoners’ religious exercise, holding in Holt v. Hobbs that Arkansas was required to accommodate a Muslim prisoner’s request for a half-inch beard. As the Supreme Court in Holt explained, RLUIPA is a crucial protection for religious prisoners, ensuring that religious exercise is not arbitrarily burdened by prison officials. Instead, prison officials must explain—with supporting evidence—why they cannot accommodate the sincere religious exercise of an inmate. This burden is especially demanding when most other prison systems safely provide the same accommodation. Unfortunately, some courts and prison systems did not get the Supreme Court’s message in Holt v. Hobbs.  

The Eleventh Circuit ignores Holt v. Hobbs 

In 2012, Lester Smith filed a lawsuit after his request to the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC) to grow a full-length beard was denied, a request that most prison systems would allow. As a devout Muslim, Mr. Smith believes that an untrimmed beard is required by his faith. But the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Mr. Smith, claiming that it was enough for GDOC to say that it is more risk-averse than 39 other prison systems, and that allowing beards creates some additional risk. In essence, GDOC can write its own permission slip to violate Mr. Smith’s rights. 

In reaching its decision, the Eleventh Circuit relied on its 2015 decision in Knight v. Thompson, where Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief. Knight was flatly inconsistent with both Holt v. Hobbs and the way that other courts around the country have interpreted RLUIPA. In Mr. Smith’s case, the Eleventh Circuit has doubled down on that wrong position. 

At the Supreme Court   

On April 28, 2022, Becket, along with Scott Ballenger and Sarah Shalf of the University of Virginia Appellate Litigation Clinic, filed a petition to the Supreme Court on behalf of Mr. Smith, asking the Court to protect this inmate’s religious expression under the rule of Holt v. Hobbs. The ruling in Holt taught us that a prison must offer enough proof that it cannot provide the same accommodation practices set by other institutions. If 39 other prison systems can allow untrimmed beards without incident, that is conclusive evidence that a longer beard is not detrimental to the safety and security of Georgia’s prisons. Courts also cannot blindly defer to prison officials’ preferences if religious accommodations are possible.  

The Supreme Court laid out a clear rule in Holt, saying that prisons should be inclined to withdraw existing accommodations if they are abused rather than denying them outright. But no such misbehavior is present here. Mr. Smith has the right to follow his sincere beliefs and grow his beard.  

On October 3, 2022, the Supreme Court declined to review the decision below in this case. 

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual freedom: A fundamental part of human dignity is recognizing the human desire for religious faith.
  • RLUIPA: The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act – passed, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), with strong bipartisan support – protects the human dignity of prisoners by ensuring that their religious liberty is protected and bans discriminatory land-use rules that are often used to prevent disfavored groups from building houses of worship.  

Supreme Court protects prayer in death chamber

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court has just protected the right of pastors to pray over the condemned in the execution chamber. In Ramirez v. Collier, John Henry Ramirez asked the Court to allow his spiritual advisor—a Southern Baptist pastor—to pray over him in the execution chamber, including laying hands on him. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is required to allow prisoners the right to meaningful clergy access in their final moments. This morning the Supreme Court agreed with Becket’s argument. Becket’s brief, which was co-authored by Professor Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School and the Harvard Law School Religious Freedom Clinic headed by Professor Josh McDaniel, was cited extensively by Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion for the Court to explain the “rich history of clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution, dating back well before the founding of our Nation.”

“Even the condemned have a right to get right with God,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president & senior counsel at Becket. “The Supreme Court correctly recognized that allowing clergy to minister to the condemned in their last moments stands squarely within a history stretching back to George Washington and before. That tradition matters.”

Prior to 2019, Texas’ policy allowed Christian and Muslim clergy into the death chamber. In 2019, TDCJ denied prisoner Patrick Murphy’s request that his Buddhist priest be allowed into the execution chamber, but after Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief, the Supreme Court halted the execution. TDCJ responded by blocking clergy of all faiths from the execution chamber. After another Supreme Court ruling in favor of a second prisoner supported by Becket, TDCJ changed course again, allowing clergy to be in the execution chamber, but prohibiting any spoken prayer or slight contact with the inmate. Today’s ruling said that TDCJ’s policy of silencing clergy runs afoul of federal civil rights law.

As Becket’s brief showed in detail, TDCJ’s ban on pastors praying aloud for the condemned or laying hands on them runs contrary to centuries of religious practice, and even TDCJ’s own practices until 2019.

Coauthor Prof. McConnell is a frequent advocate before the Supreme Court, a professor of law at Stanford Law School, the head of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, and a former judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. The Harvard Law School Religious Freedom Clinic, founded in Fall 2020, gives law students hands-on experience providing pro bono legal services in matters addressing many different religious practices.

Becket will host a press call at 11:45 a.m. ET to discuss the opinion.

Press Call Information:
Dial 312-626-6799 (Meeting ID: 849 8489 2727) or
join https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727

Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Supreme Court hears request for prayer during execution

WASHINGTON The Supreme Court has just heard a Texas death row inmate’s request that the Justices protect his first freedom in his final hour. In Ramirez v. Collier, John Henry Ramirez has asked the Court to allow his spiritual advisor—a Southern Baptist pastor—to pray over him in the execution chamber, including laying hands on him. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the First Amendment and federal civil rights law require the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to allow prisoners the right to meaningful clergy access in their final moments. This morning the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case. Becket’s brief, which was co-authored by Professor Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School and the Harvard Law School Religious Freedom Clinic headed by Professor Josh McDaniel, was mentioned at oral argument.

“Apparently everything really is bigger in Texas, even the mistakes,” said Eric Rassbach, VP & senior counsel at Becket. “And Texas is making a doozy by trying to stop condemned prisoners from getting right with God in their final minutes. Centuries of precedent and the example of the federal government and other states show there’s no good reason for Texas to deny Ramirez’s final request for his pastor to pray over him. The Supreme Court should reaffirm that a religious freedom George Washington himself protected is still protected by the First Amendment.”

Prior to 2019, Texas’ policy allowed Christian and Muslim chaplains into the death chamber. In 2019, TDCJ denied prisoner Patrick Murphy’s request that his Buddhist priest be allowed into the execution chamber, but after Becket filed a brief, the Supreme Court halted the execution. TDCJ responded by blocking spiritual advisors of all faiths from the execution chamber. After another Supreme Court ruling in favor of a prisoner supported by Becket, TDCJ’s policy now allows chaplains to be in the execution chamber, but still prohibits any spoken prayer or slight contact with the inmate.

As Becket’s brief shows in detail, TDCJ’s ban on pastors praying aloud for the condemned or laying hands on them runs contrary to centuries of religious practice, and even TDCJ’s own practices up until 2019.

The Court will likely decide the case sometime in the next few months. 

Press Call Information: 

Becket will host a press call at 1:30 p.m. EST
Dial 312-626-6799 (Meeting ID: 849 8489 2727) or join https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727
Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org 

Ramirez v. Collier

View: A HISTORY OF CLERGY PRESENCE IN THE EXECUTION CHAMBER

The right of the condemned to prayer before an execution long predates the formation of the United States, which inherited the tradition from England. Since before the colonial era, it was common for ministers to accompany the condemned to the gallows, where they would pray with, minister to, and touch those who are about to die. General George Washington honored such requests by deserters executed during the Revolution, and the United States also honored such requests by Nazi war criminals after the Nuremberg Trials. 

Today, condemned prisoners of all faiths often request such prayers in the death chamber from their clergy as a way to “get right with God” and safeguard their eternal destiny. And some religious traditions require such ministrations to those marked for death. The federal government and state governments have routinely allowed clergy to minister to the condemned in the death chamber—both by praying aloud and holding their hand. 

In 2019, the state of Alabama denied a Muslim prisoner the presence and prayer of an imam before his execution. When the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) attempted to do the same thing to a Buddhist prisoner just a few weeks later, the Supreme Court stepped in, ruling in Murphy v. Collier that Texas had to permit the prisoner’s Buddhist spiritual advisor to accompany him to the death chamber. Since then, the Supreme Court has similarly protected Christian prisoners in both Texas and Alabama. Despite these clear rulings and centuries of history, including its own traditional practices, TDCJ recently imposed two rules – one preventing clergy from praying aloud and one preventing clergy from touching the inmate – contrary to centuries of tradition. TDCJ said these long-accepted prayers would “disrupt the execution” despite any evidence that they had or would.  

Death row inmate John Henry Ramirez appealed to the Supreme Court seeking prayer and touch from his Southern Baptist pastor during his final moments. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief with prominent constitutional scholar and Stanford Law School Professor Michael McConnell and the Harvard Law School Religious Freedom Clinic. Becket’s brief describes the long history of audible clergy prayer and clergy touch and explains why that means Ramirez ought to prevail under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.  

On November 1, 2021, the case was argued before the Supreme Court. In an 8-1 vote, on March 24, 2022, the Court ruled in favor of allowing clergy to audibly and physically pray with Ramirez. The Court cited Becket’s amicus brief on the long history of clerical prayer present at executions and agreed that prohibiting such practices substantially burdened the prisoner’s religious exercise and that Texas could not satisfy strict scrutiny.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual freedom: A fundamental part of human dignity is recognizing the human desire for religious faith.
  • RLUIPA: The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act – passed, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), with strong bipartisan support – protects the human dignity of prisoners by ensuring that their religious liberty is protected and bans discriminatory land-use rules that are often used to prevent disfavored groups from building houses of worship.  

Dunn v. Smith

Leveling down to avoid religious accommodations

Until recently, Alabama required that a clergy member be present at the execution of a prisoner. But in 2019, the Alabama Department of Corrections abruptly changed its policy to instead ban all clergy members from the execution chamber in response to a Supreme Court ruling in a Texas prisoner’s case, Murphy v. Collier.

In the Texas case, Patrick Murphy was awaiting death by lethal injection, and his final request was for his Buddhist minister to pray with him at his execution. The state of Texas denied his request, arguing that his Buddhist minister was a security risk, even though the state allowed Christian ministers and Muslim imams into the chamber and the minister was a frequent chaplain to Texas prisoners. On March 28, 2019—two and a half hours after Murphy was scheduled to die—the Supreme Court stepped in and said that Texas could not go forward with the execution unless it granted Murphy access to his Buddhist spiritual advisor.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, Texas and Alabama made an ugly move to avoid accommodating minority religions. Both states changed their policies to ban all clergy members from the execution chamber.

Defending the comfort of clergy in the death chamber

Fast forward to 2021. Alabama prisoner, Willie B. Smith was scheduled to be executed for his crimes on February 11, 2021. Smith’s minister, Pastor Robert Paul Wiley, Jr., attested that during his time in prison, Smith repented of his sins and developed a strong personal faith. Pastor Wiley has spent years ministering to Smith in prison. Smith asked that Pastor Wiley be allowed to accompany him in the execution chamber but, in accordance with Alabama’s new discriminatory policy, his request was denied.

Smith sued the state of Alabama for his right to be accompanied by his pastor at the moment of death. The district court ruled against Smith, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled in his favor. Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court on February 11, 2021, the morning of Smith’s scheduled execution.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Smith, arguing that 13 out of 20 prisoners executed in the United States over the past year were allowed to have a clergy member of their choice present in the execution chamber. If the federal government and other states have been able to offer this religious accommodation, so too should Alabama. The brief also argued that the Constitution requires more than equal, bad treatment for all faiths. It requires that all Americans, including prisoners, be accommodated in their religious exercise whenever possible.

Late on the night of February 11, 2021 the Supreme Court declined to disturb the court of appeals ruling that Alabama must allow Smith to be accompanied by his pastor in the execution chamber. Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Barrett, agreed with the Court’s decision, writing that “past practice, in Alabama and elsewhere, shows that a prison may ensure security without barring all clergy members from the execution chamber.”

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual Freedom: Religion is an innate human desire, and all individuals regardless of their legal status deserve protection of their constitutional right to practice and adhere to their faith.
  • RLUIPA: Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed with bipartisan support. RLUIPA ensures religious liberty in two areas where it is most vulnerable: land use and prisons.

Sossamon v. Texas

Getting right with God

Harvey Sossamon was an inmate in a Texas. He wanted to cultivate his faith even while in prison, but he was denied access to the prison chapel for religious services even though other inmates were allowed access to the same space for secular uses such as marriage training sessions and sex education. Instead, the prison officials allowed worship services to be held only in multi-purpose spaces where there were no religious symbols to aid in worship.

This meant that, while he was able to practice his faith in multi-purpose spaces, he was unable to engage in essential aspects of Christian worship such as kneeling at the altar or praying at the foot of a cross.

Pursuing equal access

Sossamon sued the prison officials in their individual capacities, arguing that denying him access to the chapel unfairly burdened his religious exercise and is prohibited under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), an important civil rights law that protects the religious liberty of prisoners and patients.

Denied just recourse

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas ruled against Sossamon, finding that he could not sue the officials in their individual capacity under RLUIPA. On appeal to the Fifth Circuit, Sossamon lost again. Sossamon appealed his case to the Supreme Court of the United States. At the Supreme Court, Becket filed an amicus brief that explained why it is so important for religious individuals to be able to sue government officials under the federal civil rights laws. The Supreme Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s decision on technical grounds, holding that Congress had not been specific enough in the wording of RLUIPA to override the State of Texas’s sovereign immunity. Justice Sotomayor dissented, discussing at length Becket’s kosher diet case Moussazadeh v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Importance to Religious Liberty:
Individual Freedom—In order for individuals to have the freedom to exercise their beliefs without government interference, individual government actors who take adverse action against religious liberty must be able to be held personally responsible.

Patrick Henry Murphy v. Bryan Collier, Executive Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice

On the evening of March 28, Patrick Murphy was awaiting death by lethal injection. His final request for his Buddhist minister to pray with him at his execution, and help lead him into the afterlife in which he believes, had been denied. Yet at 9:20 pm—two and a half hours after Murphy was scheduled to die—the Supreme Court of the United States stepped in. The Court said that Texas could not go forward with the execution unless and until it granted Murphy the right to a reverend of his own faith at his side.

It was a shock—especially given that just weeks before, the Supreme Court refused to stop the execution of Muslim prisoner Domineque Ray when he was denied an imam at his own moment of death.

The story of what changed—and how Becket helped win the rights of the condemned to the comfort of clergy—comes down to the power of arguments based on principle.

Texas denies religious rights at death 

For the past six years, Patrick Murphy has practiced his Buddhist faith in prison with the help of spiritual advisor Rev. Hui-Yong Shih. Mr. Murphy believes that the presence of his spiritual advisor in the moments before his execution is necessary to assist him to maintain the focus required to be reborn in the Pure Land after death.

Despite Texas permitting Rev. Shih to visit Mr. Murphy in prison for over six years, and despite official prison approval of Rev. Shih as a prison spiritual advisor, the State of Texas refused Mr. Murphy’s request to have Rev. Shih present with him in the execution chamber. Texas made the surprising argument that a Buddhist minister was a security risk to the prison. And this was despite the fact that Texas already permitted Christian ministers and Muslim imams to be present in the execution chamber.

An eleventh-hour voice of reason 

Death penalty appeals are harried, and provoke strong feelings and emotions from all sides. In order to help prevent this from clouding the key religious liberty issues at stake, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court. This brief pointed the way toward a clear path that could protect the religious liberty of Mr. Murphy, while cutting through the competing arguments and ideological differences that are usually involved in a death penalty appeal.

Becket’s brief made the point that principles of religious liberty—and the very tangible religious liberty interest of Mr. Murphy—should not be ignored simply because the Court might not approve of the delay tactics that often accompany a Supreme Court death penalty appeal. Instead, the Court could protect religious liberty and find other ways to make their dislike of last-minute stay applications known.

More specifically, Becket marshaled key legal and historical sources to explain why a prisoner facing imminent execution has the constitutional right to turn to his minister for crucial support:

“The guidance of the soul at the moment of execution—the moment at which the knife falls—has for centuries been well recognized as a crucial moment of religious exercise calling for a minister’s guidance. This Court should recognize that our Constitution and civil rights laws support a right to that guidance.”

Becket asked that the Court order the State of Texas to grant Murphy access to his Buddhist minister in the execution chamber, which is exactly what the Supreme Court did.

The Supreme Court took action 

Almost two and a half hours after the scheduled start of Murphy’s execution by the State of Texas, the United States Supreme Court issued an order halting Murphy’s execution. The Court ruled that Texas could not proceed with the execution “unless the State permits Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual advisor… to accompany Murphy in the execution chamber,” exactly following Becket’s recommendation.

Justice Kavanaugh wrote separately, reinforcing the fact that “governmental discrimination against religion—in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech—violates the Constitution.”

What changed?  

But what about the Muslim prisoner who was denied the same source of comfort at the moment of his death just a month earlier? One factor is clear: Becket’s involvement in the case brought new legal arguments to the table—arguments that were not made in the prior appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, without the benefit of these arguments, was not presented with the full picture. Becket relied on cases that support the Free Exercise of religion, and prevent discrimination against people with different religious beliefs as a result. But the arguments previously made in support of the Muslim prisoner were more limited, and focused instead on different legal protections. This change was crucial to the protection of religious liberty in principle and in practice.

Importance to Religious Liberty

  • Individual Freedom: Religion is an innate human desire, and all individuals regardless of their legal status deserve protection of their constitutional right to practice and adhere to their faith.
  • RLUIPA: Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed with bipartisan support. RLUIPA ensures religious liberty in two areas where it is most vulnerable: land use and prisons.

Moussazadeh v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Prisoners are people too

Prisoners lose many of their physical rights when they enter prison, but they do not lose their dignity. They may be unpopular, but they still have human rights.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act (RLUIPA) was established to protect those rights. Congress unanimously passed RLUIPA in 2000 because prison bureaucrats around the country were arbitrarily banning Bible studies, confiscating sacred texts, denying access to the sacraments, and prohibiting religious diets to prisoners. These arbitrary bans not only undermined the rehabilitation of prisoners, but also stripped them of their dignity by denying their right to seek God.

A Texas-sized denial of dignity

Max Moussazadeh is an Orthodox Jew who was imprisoned in Texas and denied kosher meals. In October 2005, Becket sued the State of Texas on Mr. Moussazedeh’s behalf, arguing that the state was arbitrarily denying Mr. Moussazadeh’s religious freedom in violation of RLUIPA. The vast majority of prison systems across the U.S. provide Jewish prisoners with kosher meals, and have done so for many years. Texas could do so at a cost of less than 0.02% of the prison system’s annual food budget.

Victory and freedom

Thanks to Becket’s and Latham & Watkins’ lawsuit — which lasted twelve years and included two victories at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit — the Texas prison system established a kosher diet plan and began providing Mr. Moussazadeh and all Orthodox Jewish inmates with kosher meals. Mr. Moussazadeh then put his lawsuit on hold, and ultimately dropped the lawsuit in 2017 after being released from prison.

Becket has also brought successful kosher meal cases against the states of Florida and Georgia, and assisted in a similar victory against Indiana. In 2015, it won a unanimous Supreme Court victory in Holt v. Hobbs, a landmark case protecting the right of all prisoners to peacefully practice their faith.

 

Holt v. Hobbs

Protecting religious expression for prisoners is important, see why:

Religious freedom restricted for prisoners in “unnecessary ways”

Nearly two decades ago, Congress found that government bureaucrats routinely trample on religious liberty in prison. As the joint statement of Senators Hatch (R-UT) and Kennedy (D-MA) put it: “Whether from indifference, ignorance, bigotry, or lack of resources, some institutions restrict religious liberty in egregious and unnecessary ways.”

These religious liberty restrictions affected people of many faiths. Many prisons barred Jewish inmates from wearing yarmulkes, denied Catholics access to the sacraments of communion and confession, and shut down Evangelical Bible studies. Many prisons also banned religious diets such as kosher food, confiscated and destroyed sacred texts, such as the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and often banned religious objects, such as rosaries, prayer shawls, and yarmulkes. One prison prohibited various religious holidays, restricting prisoners’ ability to fast, pray, and worship God on special occasions. And in one extreme instance, prison officials violated the seal of the confessional by bugging inmates’ confessions to their priests.

Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)

In response to these and many other displays of religious suppression, an overwhelmingly bipartisan Congress enacted a landmark civil rights statute, which was signed by President Clinton in 2000: the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

RLUIPA embodies a very simple principle: Prison officials should not impose egregious and unnecessary restrictions on religious liberty. Of course, prisoners lose many of their physical rights when they enter prison, but they cannot be forced to surrender peaceful expressions of their humanity due to the arbitrary whims of prison officials. Just as the Constitution prevents dehumanizing forms of cruel and unusual punishment, RLUIPA prevents stubborn bureaucrats from stripping inmates of human dignity by denying them the ability to seek God.

Despite RLUIPA, prisoners still face religious liberty violations

Despite the promise of RLUIPA, some inmates still experience persecution for peaceful displays of religious devotion. In June 2011, Abdul Muhammad, an inmate in an Arkansas state prison, sued in federal court for the right to wear a beard in accordance with religious beliefs. The Arkansas prison had denied Mr. Muhammad’s request to grow the ½ inch beard his Muslim faith commands, citing security and safety concerns, even though Arkansas already allowed inmates to grow beards for medical reasons, and even though Mr. Muhammad’s ½ inch beard would be permissible in 44 state and federal prison systems across the country.

Representing himself, Mr. Muhammad lost in federal trial court and in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. He then submitted a handwritten petition for an injunction to the Supreme Court. On March 3, 2014, the Supreme Court granted his petition and said that it would hear his appeal in full.

Unanimous victory at the Supreme Court

Becket and Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia School of Law stepped in to represent Mr. Muhammad at the Supreme Court. On January 2015, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Mr. Muhammad, saying Arkansas had clearly put Mr. Muhammad in an impossible choice: to violate his beliefs or suffering disciplinary sanctions. The Court rejected Arkansas’s defenses, pointing out that because so many other states were able to accommodate inmates required to grow a beard for both medical and religious reasons, Arkansas had to explain why its situation was different.

Becket has long defended prisoners’ religious liberty, including protecting prisoners’ rights to kosher diets in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Defending prisoners from arbitrary restrictions on their religious freedom strengthens religious liberty for all.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: Individual religious freedom encompasses more than just thought or contemplation—it involves action. Individuals must be free to follow their religious convictions into practice, including when they are incarcerated.
  • RLUIPA: Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed with bipartisan support. RLUIPA ensures religious liberty in two areas where it is most vulnerable: land use and prisons.

For the in-depth story, listen to the Stream of Conscience podcast episode about this case, Conviction and Confinement.

U.S. v. Florida Department of Corrections

Prisoners are not popular, but they are human. That is why Becket defends religious freedom for prisoners.

In 2000, Congress discovered that government bureaucrats were routinely trampling religious freedom in prison. They were needlessly confiscating sacred texts, breaking up worship meetings, and banning religious diets. So Congress unanimously passed a law that forbids arbitrary restrictions on religious freedom in prison.

Invoking that law, Becket defended the rights of religious prisoners in Florida for over a decade. Until July 2016, Florida’s was one of the last prison systems in the country that denied its inmates religious appropriate diets. Becket sued Florida twice over the denial of a kosher diet—first in 2002, then in 2012. Both times it received a favorable result on behalf of one Jewish prisoner. Then represented by the Department of Justice, the United States government itself sued the Florida Department of Corrections on behalf of all observant prisoners.

In 2015, a federal district court ordered Florida to begin providing kosher meals for all observant Jewish inmates, and the Department appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Becket, represented by the global law firm Jones Day, filed an amicus brief in March 2016 urging the protection of the religious rights of all prisoners. The brief points out that at least 35 states and the federal government provide kosher diets to Jewish prisoners, and there is no reason the Florida Department of Corrections can’t do the same. The court heard oral arguments in July 2016, and two days later it affirmed the district court’s order to provide religious diets for observant Jewish prisoners. In October 2016, in another case that Becket supported with an amicus brief, the Court ruled that the Department must provide a religious diet for a Muslim inmate.

Becket, which has successfully represented or supported religious prisoners in Georgia, Texas, Indiana, and in past Florida cases, has never lost a case concerning a prison system’s denial of religious diets. In 2015, it won a landmark, 9-0 ruling in favor of prisoners at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rich v. Buss

A prisoner’s choice: Faith or food

What if you had to choose between practicing your faith and receiving adequate nutrition? That choice confronted Bruce Rich, an Orthodox Jewish prisoner. The reason? Mr. Rich is a Florida inmate, and Florida was one of the last remaining states in the country to deny kosher diets to Jewish prisoners.

Mr. Rich has kept kosher his entire adult life. In prison, he observes the Sabbath and is seen as a rabbi to other Jewish prisoners, teaching the Torah and serving as cantor during religious services. Mr. Rich believes that keeping a kosher diet is not a voluntary endeavor, but a fundamental tenet of his faith. Because he was denied a kosher diet, on two different occasions Mr. Rich was forced to go without regular meals for over a month. Mr. Rich sued in 2010 in federal district court, which ruled against him in 2012.

Becket defends religious liberty behind bars

In 2012, Becket filed an appeal on behalf of Mr. Rich, arguing that denial of a kosher diet violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)—a landmark civil rights law designed to protect religious freedom in prison. Congress enacted RLUIPA unanimously in 2000, finding that, “[w]hether from indifference, ignorance, bigotry, or lack of resources, some institutions restrict religious liberty in egregious and unnecessary ways.”

In response to Mr. Rich’s lawsuit, Florida claimed that denying a kosher diet was necessary to control costs and maintain security. But at the time, 35 other states and the federal government already provided kosher diets without problems of cost or security. And from 2004 to 2007, Florida itself provided a Jewish dietary program that cost only a fraction of one percent of its annual food budget and did not result in any security problems.

Unanimous victory for Jewish inmates

In May 2013, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in Mr. Rich’s favor, finding that “the evidence submitted by [Florida] … is insubstantial.” The court said that Florida made only “meager efforts to explain why Florida’s prisons are so different from the penal institutions that now provide kosher meals.” It then sent the case back to the district court.

Shortly after, a district court in a separate case, relying on the Eleventh Circuit’s decision, ordered Florida to begin providing a kosher diet to all observant Jewish inmates, including Mr. Rich, no later than July 1, 2014. In response to this victory, Mr. Rich voluntarily withdrew his lawsuit.

In addition to winning Mr. Rich’s appeal at the Eleventh Circuit, Becket has won previous kosher diet cases against Florida, Georgia, and Texas, and assisted in a similar victory against Indiana. In fact, Becket has never lost a kosher diet case against a prison system.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • Individual freedom: Individual religious freedom encompasses more than just thought or contemplation—it involves action. Individuals must be free to follow their religious convictions into practice, including when they are incarcerated.
  • RLUIPA: Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed with bipartisan support. RLUIPA ensures religious liberty in two areas where it is most vulnerable: land use and prisons.

Center for Inquiry v. Jones


Meet Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries

Addiction is a major problem and cause of criminal recidivism in the United States. To help break this vicious cycle, the state of Florida works with private organizations like Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries to help those recently released from prison assimilate back into society.

For as little as $14 a day from the state, the groups help men find transportation, medical services, job training and whatever basic services they need to find work, stay sober, and make a successful transition back into society. The groups also provide, at no cost to the state, substance abuse treatment modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous. The entire program is voluntary—individuals can choose to participate, choose which sessions best fits their needs, and also choose to join in optional religious discussions if they find them helpful.

Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries’ success rate is nearly three times the national average, and Prisoners of Christ alone has helped over 2,300 people get back on their feet. Although the state only covers a fraction of their costs, they serve at a financial loss because their faith calls them to serve.

The atheists who wanted them gone

The Center for Inquiry—an atheist group affiliated with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science—sued the state of Florida and the ministries in an attempt to shut down the partnerships. The atheist group claimed that state funds should never go to “pervasively sectarian” groups—even when those groups provide valuable services like room, board, and job training assistance. Even though the services are provided at a bargain price. Even though no state money goes to religious activities. Even though the program works.

Becket defends religious ministries who do valuable work for society

Becket represented Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God Ministries together with prominent Florida firm Ausley McMullen. The state of Florida also defended the program.

The issue was a provision of the Florida constitution enacted more than a century ago during a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment that barred state aid to “sectarian” institutions. Many states enacted laws during that time period that barred state funds for “sectarian,” or Catholic organizations. Today, these archaic laws, known as Blaine Amendments, are often dredged up and used against public-private partnerships with a wide variety of faith groups.

In January 2016, a Tallahassee court ruled in favor of Prisoners of Christ and Lamb of God ministries. The court rejected the atheist group’s argument as “discriminatory” and stated that its extreme view of the law could stop the state from partnering with Florida’s large Baptist and Catholic hospital systems to serve the poor. The atheist group chose not to appeal the ruling, meaning the case is over and the ministries may continue their valuable service to society.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Dismantling discriminatory state laws: While anti-religious laws from the mid-19th century remain in place, people of all faiths are at risk of facing discrimination. Faith-based ministries have the right to partner with the state to provide a valuable service to society.

Guzzi v. Thompson

Rosario Guzzi is a prison inmate in Massachusetts who requested kosher meals based upon his “Orthodox Catholic” beliefs. The state denied his request and when he sued, the federal district court upheld the denial based on the judge’s declaration that the tenets of Catholicism do not require believers to keep kosher.

Representing himself, Guzzi appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. That Court, presumably concerned about the district court’s decision to interpret and apply the content of Catholic doctrine, invited Eric Rassbach, the Becket Fund’s National Litigation Director, to brief and argue the case as a friend of the court in support of neither party. Rassbach told the court that, “governments should not be deciding whether a religious belief is orthodox.” The Becket Fund further argued that such out-of-the-ordinary requests must be judged by the inmate’s sincerity and truthfulness (a factual test common in many areas of law), not by a state-created list detailing which religious practices belong to which religion. Otherwise the state would back into the role of deciding what religious beliefs are allowed and which are not, a censorship role that would harm all religious believers. Rassbach suggested that the district court should first have decided whether Guzzi was really telling the truth about what he believed or was simply trying to provoke the prison administration with an insincere claim.

After oral argument but before the First Circuit issued its decision, Massachusetts tried to end the case prematurely by suddenly ordering a kosher diet for Guzzi. This would have left in place the district court’s decision giving Massachusetts a right to define orthodoxy in religion. The Becket Fund immediately asked the First Circuit to vacate the lower court’s decision, getting rid of the district court’s “theology police” opinion. The First Circuit ruled in favor of the Becket Fund.

It was a victory for all who believe that government officials should not be in the business of theological interpretation.

Negusie v. Mukasey

Daniel Negusie, an Eritrean Christian, was imprisoned in inhumane conditions for his refusal to serve in his country’s military. While in prison, he was punished and threatened with death for his conversion to Christianity.  After two years of imprisonment, he was made a guard and threatened with more punishment if he did not carry out his duties as a guard.  However, Negusie disobeyed orders to inflict violent punishment on prisoners, allowed prisoners to take showers, and sneaked basic amenities to prisoners. After two more years, he was able to flee the prison and the country, hiding in a container on a ship bound for the United States.

However, upon arriving at a U.S. port, he was denied asylum because, as a prison guard, he “assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of others.” The U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals agreed, saying “the fact that [Negusie] was compelled to participate as a prison guard, and may not have actively tortured or mistreated anyone, is immaterial.”

The case went before the Fifth Circuit Court in Louisiana and ultimately the Supreme Court, where Becket created and led a coalition of religious and human rights organizations which filed an amicus brief in his support. The brief argued that Mr. Negusie should not be punished for acting as a guard, since he was forced to do so as a part of his punishment. This was a crime committed against Negusie, not by Negusie. Becket argued that it is common for thug regimes to set believers against one another and alienate the religious from their consciences, a form of persecution the U.S. must condemn.

The Supreme Court sided with Becket and Mr. Negusie, ordering the lower court to rethink its decision.

Becket’s brief was co-signed by a range of human rights organizations that included the American Islamic Congress, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), China Aid Association, the Dalit Freedom Network, the Hindu American Foundation, the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Human Dignity International, the Institute for Global Engagement, The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Jubilee Campaign, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, Open Doors USA, the Queens Federation of Churches, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and United Sikhs.

Negusie was represented by Mayor Brown LLP; Yale Law School Supreme Court Clinic.

 

Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries

Imagine thanking one of the most successful prisoner rehabilitation programs in the nation with a $1.5 million dollar plus fine. But a federal judge in Iowa, acting at the behest of the hyperseparationist group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, did just that.

The Iowa InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) is a comprehensive, faith-based pre-release rehabilitation program for prisoners that was designed by Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries. It has an exemplary record of successfully rehabilitating hardened criminals into contributing members of society. The program presents viable, cost-saving solutions for helping prisoners, something with which state and local governments often struggle. However, in 2006, after a lawsuit was brought by the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, an Iowa federal judge ordered that the IFI program in Iowa be shut down, and that IFI and its affiliate, Prison Fellowship Ministries, repay the state of Iowa the more than $1.5 million which IFI had received for services over the previous six years.

The reasoning? According to the court, IFI is “pervasively sectarian,” and therefore simply cannot interact with the state. This discredited doctrine had already been rejected by the federal courts, making the ruling even more preposterous. After losing in trial court, Prison Fellowship contacted Becket and asked us to take on the appeal before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2007, we argued the case before an Eight Circuit panel that included former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

In a huge win for all faith-based programs, the Eighth Circuit reversed the most damaging part of the district court’s judgment, rejecting the idea that Prison Fellowship had to repay the amounts they had earned for providing rehabilitation services. Although political changes in Iowa resulted in an end to the program there, the result in this case ensured that Prison Fellowship could continue its ministries in many other state prison systems and continue to help many prisoners repent and rebuild their lives.

Benning v. Georgia

Ralph Benning is a Torah observant Jew who eats kosher food, wear a yarmulke, observes his faith’s specific holy days and performs religious rituals. He was an inmate in the Georgia prison system.

Benning asked a number of state and prison officials to provide him with a kosher diet and permit him to wear a yarmulke. When prison officials denied Benning’s requests, he had no choice but to file suit. Georgia moved to dismiss, arguing that the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was unconstitutional because (Georgia claimed) it exceeded the authority of Congress under the Spending and Commerce Clauses, and violated the Tenth Amendment and the Establishment Clause.

The district court dismissed some of Benning’s claims and concluded that RLUIPA was constitutional, but allowed that issue to be appealed. On appeal to the Eleventh Circuit, Judge Pryor, writing for a unanimous panel held that “RLUIPA was validly enacted under the Spending Clause and does not violate either the Tenth Amendment or the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

After the case went back to district court, Georgia settled the case by creating a kosher dietary program for all observant Jewish prisoners, including Ralph Benning.

Cotton v. Florida Department of Corrections

Alan J. Cotton was a prisoner in Florida’s Everglades Correctional Institution who tried for several years to get the state Department of Corrections to provide him with kosher meals. Cotton was born and raised in the Jewish faith, and was a “sincere adherent of Orthodox Judaism” who “believes he is required to keep a kosher diet” in order to “conform to the divine will of God as expressed in the Torah.”

Such requests for a special diet are not unusual, and federal prisons in Florida routinely accommodate requests for kosher food. Cotton began his battle for a kosher diet in October 2000. Several requests were denied, and a subsequent appeal was rejected.

In September 2002, Becket filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections, charging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Florida Constitution, and the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998.

In October 2003, the Florida Department of Corrections finally settled, allowing Cotton to receive kosher meals according to his Orthodox Jewish faith.

Smith v. Allen

Becket is committed to defending the rights of all religious faiths, even those unknown to most Americans. When an Alabama prison inmate requested to keep an Odinist meditation crystal while in prison, officials denied his request on multiple occasions; Becket intervened on his behalf after the District Court upheld the prison’s decision.

Though the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals elected not to provide the specific prisoner with his meditation crystal (due to some limiting factors unique to the case), it did affirm the general rights of prisoners to religious accommodations under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Further, it afforded religious inmates the opportunity to assert this right when a lack of accommodation can be demonstrated to have caused a substantial burden to the inmate. Thus, independent of the specific issue at stake in the case, the religious rights of prisoners were broadly upheld.

This decision laid the groundwork for future religious liberty cases dealing with the freedoms of prisoners, and ensured that individuals who face legitimate burdens on their exercise of faith may seek relief through the judicial system.

Welch v. Cobb County

At the Cobb County Adult Detention Center, officials singled out the Roman Catholic faith, prohibiting a priest from conducting mass while allowing Protestants to practice their religion freely.

Because weekly Mass is an critical element of the Catholic faith, Rev. John Welch offered to lead a weekly Mass for the prison’s two dozen Catholic inmates, at no cost to the State. Disturbingly, the state-paid chaplain of the prison prohibited Welch from leading Mass at the prison, based on his expressed dislike for Catholics and his belief that Catholics are not Christians.

While the chaplain allowed Welch to lead a non-denominational Christian religious service once or twice a month, he mandated that this service cannot contain those elements of the ceremony that make it a Catholic Mass. Rev. Welch had also been prevented from holding a Bible Study at the prison.

By allowing these unconstitutional roadblocks to Reverend Welch’s volunteer service, the state’s discriminatory action forced Catholic prisoners to violate the dictates of their faith by failing to attend weekly Mass. Recognizing this problem, Becket intervened on behalf of Welch and the Catholic inmates, and secured an out-of-court victory for the free exercise of religion at the detention center.