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.  

Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski

Sharing his faith in Jesus

Chike Uzuegbunam, the son of Nigerian immigrant parents and a man of faith, was a student at Georgia Gwinnett College. As a junior in 2016, Chike began sharing a message about Jesus’ love in a plaza outside of the school’s library. “All I wanted to do was share with other students the faith that changed my life,” Chike said.

Threatened with arrest for sharing his faith

Although he wasn’t disturbing anyone, Chike was stopped by campus officials, who told him that he could only distribute literature in a designated “speech zone,” – two tiny areas making up less than 0.0015% of the campus. Chike complied with the policy and reserved a speech zone, but when he tried to speak again, he was silenced by campus police, who threatened to arrest him for “disturbing the peace” if he continued publicly sharing his faith.

Not only was Georgia Gwinnett’s policy – confining free expression to two tiny zones – ridiculous, it was also enforced in a discriminatory fashion. Chike was threatened with arrest for quietly talking with other students who were interested in his message, but university officials allowed other students to talk and play loud music in public areas without silencing them.

Threatened for sharing his faith and speaking his mind, Chike was determined that others—including his friend Joseph Bradford, who had planned to follow Chike’s example until Chike was silenced—should not have to go through the same experience. Chike filed a lawsuit against Georgia Gwinnett.

Holding the government accountable

As a public university, Georgia Gwinnett should have followed the Constitution and allowed Chike to speak. But Georgia Gwinnett’s lawyers still fought to defend their unconstitutional policy in court. Then, Georgia Gwinnett unexpectedly dropped its policy and argued that Chike’s case should be dismissed as “moot” because he had graduated—and that the court should never decide whether the college had violated the law.

Since large government bureaucracies like universities and prisons often use this tactic to avoid facing judgment, Chike was prepared. He had included a request for a small amount of money – “nominal damages”—so that the court could still give justice to Chike even if his case took years to resolve. But the district court still dismissed Chike’s case. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, breaking with every other U.S. Court of Appeals to hold that, if he wanted justice, Chike should have asked for more money, in the form of “compensatory damages.”

Governments should not be allowed to evade accountability by changing their unconstitutional policies after the fact and then using technical loopholes (like whether the plaintiffs have asked for nominal vs. compensatory damages) to avoid facing justice for their past actions.

On September 29, 2020, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that governments should not be allowed to evade accountability by changing their unconstitutional policies after the fact and then using technical loopholes (like whether the plaintiffs have asked for nominal vs. compensatory damages) to avoid facing justice for their past actions. Becket, which frequently represents people seeking to practice their faith in prison, pointed out that in many cases, federal law forbids inmates from bringing the kind of compensatory damages claims that the Eleventh Circuit requires.

On March 8, 2021, the Court ruled that Uzuegbunam deserved remedy for his constitutional injury when school officials silenced his religious speech.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Free speech: Free speech is an important human right – and an important constitutional right as well. Unaccountable bureaucrats should not be able to stifle free speech, even – and especially – if the views expressed are unpopular, controversial, or simply disfavored by the government.
  • Public square: Religious exercise is an important part of being human, and as such it has a valuable place in the public square. Religious speech should be protected and cherished, the same as any other form of expression.
  • Education: Students like Chike Uzuegbunam don’t give up their rights when they attend a public college. Establishments of higher education are meant to be places of free and open inquiry, not government inquisition.

Gaddy v. Georgia Department of Revenue

In 2008 the state of Georgia created a scholarship program that allows children of low income families to attend a school, religious or secular, that best fit their needs. The scholarships are funded through voluntary donations from Georgia taxpayers, who could count the donations as tax credits.

But the program is now being threatened by a group that claims the scholarship program violates Georgia’s Blaine Amendment, an arcane anti-religious provision adopted in the mid-19th century and originally used to discriminate against a growing wave of Catholic immigrants in the U.S.

To this day, Blaine Amendments remain in dozens of state constitutions and prohibit the use of state funds at “sectarian” schools.  They have an ugly history. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. endured a rash of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigotry known as the “Know-Nothing” movement—decried at the time by Abraham Lincoln and in recent years throughout the courts. The movement unleashed a wave of religious discrimination in the form of Blaine Amendments, which were adopted in numerous state constitutions in the late 1800s and early 1900s and were designed to suppress Catholic schools in favor of Protestant-dominated public schools.

If this scholarship program ends, thousands of low-income children will be deprived of the education they need to succeed. And if the lawsuit succeeds, severe limitations would block the government from working with vital private charities, forbidding crucial service organizations from accepting even neutral government aid.

In December 2016, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief to defend the tax credit program and to condemn Georgia’s anti-religious Blaine Amendment, which is being used to prevent children from getting the best education for their needs. In January 2017, the Georgia Supreme Court heard oral argument, and in June 2017, ruled to protect low-income schoolchildren and their scholarship program. Georgia’s Office of the Attorney General was counsel in this case.

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.

Refuge Temple Ministries of Atlanta v. City of Forest Park

On March 14, 2002, U.S. District Court Judge Marvin H. Shoob approved a Consent Order under which the City of Forest Park, Georgia retreated completely from its earlier refusal to allow Refuge Temple Ministries to occupy and use a commercial property within its C-2 district. The city conceded that the zoning ordinance used to bar the church, since repealed, “would not have survived review under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.” The Consent Order also declared that “The establishment of a place of worship operated by the Plaintiff, Refuge Temple Ministries, shall be a permitted use within Forest Park’s C-2 District.”


Refuge Temple Ministries of Atlanta is a small church founded in December, 1997. Its approximately 50 members had been meeting at the home of Pastor Harry Simon and various other buildings, and sought a permanent home for the church. In August, 2000 they negotiated a lease for a property in Forest Park, a suburb on the south side of Atlanta. The building, at 770 Main Street, is located in the city’s C-2 (“central commercial”) district, which permits “churches and other places of worship with attendant education and recreational buildings” as permitted uses. On August 11, they obtained a Zoning Verification from city officials, signed the lease, and prepared to occupy the property. They spent nearly $14,000 on a first-and-last-month deposit, renovations and utilities.

On August 29, city officials notified Pastor Simon that they had approved the zoning application in error, having been unaware that the City Council had adopted a new zoning ordinance just four days earlier. The new law required churches to obtain a Special Land Use Permit in order to occupy property in the C-2 district, although it continues to allow other similar uses – private clubs, lodges, theaters, auditoriums and other places of assembly – without such a permit.

The church proceeded to apply for the special permit on September 8, but although no one appeared in opposition to granting the permit at meetings of the Zoning Board and City Council, on December 18, the Council voted to deny the permit without explanation.

On April 12, 2001, Refuge Temple Ministries filed suit in Federal District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, in Atlanta, charging the City of Forest Park with violations of the U.S. and Georgia Constitutions and seeking relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). On June 4, the city council repealed the ordinance. On October 19, 2001, Refuge Temple Ministries moved for partial summary judgment.

After extended negotiations, the city finally agreed to a Consent Order (see above), and also provided a letter of apology to Pastor Harry Simon, declaring that the city “regrets Refuge Temple Ministries’ inability to locate its ministry within Forest Park.” The church, which moved into space outside the city during pendancy of the lawsuit, was invited “to locate within Forest Park some time in the future.”

Refuge Temple Ministries was represented in the lawsuit by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and by local counsel H. Eric Hilton. (Refuge Temple Ministries of Atlanta v. City of Forest Park, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, No. 1:01-CV-0958-MHS)

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.