RICHMOND, Va. A law passed by Congress protecting the religious rights of inmates does not amount to an unconstitutional advancement of religion, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed a federal judge's ruling that a section of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 impermissibly places religious freedom above other civil rights.
"There is no requirement that legislative protections for fundamental rights march in lockstep," 4th Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in Madison v. Riter.
Senior U.S. District Judge James Turk of Roanoke had struck down the provision after Ira Madison, a Hebrew Israelite serving time at Buckingham Correctional Center for cocaine possession, sued state prison officials for denying his request for a kosher diet. Hebrew Israelites are a denomination of African-Americans who regard themselves as the true descendants of the biblical tribe of Judah.
Department of Corrections officials questioned the sincerity of Madison's belief and cited his history of disciplinary problems in denying his request for a kosher diet.
Federal law prohibits prison officials from refusing inmates the ability to exercise religion unless they can show a compelling reason. Turk ruled last January that RLUIPA effectively grants religious inmates special benefits not afforded nonreligious prisoners.
The appeals court disagreed with Turk's finding that such protection violates the First Amendment's establishment clause.
"Congress has not sponsored religion or become actively involved in religious activity. ... Congress has simply lifted government burdens on religious exercise and thereby facilitated free exercise of religion for those who wish to practice their faiths," Wilkinson wrote.
The state attorney general's office, which defended the Corrections Department, will not appeal the ruling, a spokesman said.
Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, said the decision is a victory for religious freedom.
"The 4th Circuit has recognized that this law is a permissible way to prevent substantial burdens from being imposed on free exercise of religion," said Mincberg, whose organization supported Madison's appeal.
Mincberg said the law may ultimately be tested in the U.S. Supreme Court because of conflicting lower-court rulings.
Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia, said yesterday's ruling could affect a pending case challenging a prison grooming policy on religious grounds. The ACLU claims a requirement that inmates shave and keep their hair short violates the rights of Muslims and Rastafarians.
"This is an important decision for Virginia's prisoners, particularly those who want to continue practicing their religion while incarcerated," Willis said.