Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, December 30, 2002


Page 1


Ninth Circuit Rejects State Officials’ Challenge to Muslim Prison Inmates’ Friday Prayers


By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer


Muslim prison inmates will continue to be able to attend Friday afternoon religious services over the objection of California state prison officials under a ruling Friday by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court rejected the state challenge to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which Congress passed in part to allow prisoners the right to participate in worship services while incarcerated.

Congress was well within its authority under the Spending Clause to adopt the law, and did not run afoul of the Establishment Clause prohibition on government entanglement with religion, the Ninth Circuit ruled. In fact, the statute helps carry out what the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted as the First Amendment’s requirement that religious practices be reasonably accommodated, Senior Judge Dorothy W. Nelson said.

“The statute does not violate the Establishment Clause just because it seeks to lift burdens on religious worship in institutions without affording corresponding protection to secular activities or to non-religious prisoners,” Nelson wrote. “RLUIPA merely accommodates and protects the free exercise of religion, which the Constitution allows.”

The ruling upholds a series of preliminary injunctions issued by Senior U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton of the Eastern District of California. Karlton blocked prison officials from denying good time credits to inmates at the state prison in Solano who attended Friday Jumu’ah services.

The prisoners originally brought their action in 1996 under the First Amendment, then added the RLUIPA claim on its enactment four years later.

Although Nelson explored the impact of the First Amendment on the 2000 statute, the discussion came in the context of an analysis of the Spending Clause, an Article I clause that has been interpreted as giving Congress broad powers to act to promote the general welfare of the United States.

Nelson noted that the clause permits Congress to condition the receipt of federal funds on compliance with federal mandates. Although the clause applies broadly, a statute passed under the clause must be in the pursuit of the general welfare, conditions on grants must be unambiguous and clearly communicated to the states, the law should be related to the federal interest in particular national programsóalthough that test has been only hinted at in a Supreme Court rulingóand the statute must not run afoul of other constitutional provisions.

As for promoting the general welfare, Nelson said, “protecting religious worship in institutions from substantial and illegitimate burdens” qualifies.

Conditions are expressed clearly enough, she said.

“By its plain language, RLUIPA clearly communicates that any institution receiving federal funds must not substantially burden the exercise of religion absent a showing that the burden is the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest,” the judge said. “The fact that the least restrictive means standard is perhaps unpredictable because it has resulted in different determinations in different courts does not weaken the express conditional language.”

Relatedness to a federal interest in a national program is only a possible ground for invalidating a statute on Spending Clause grounds under the 1987 Supreme Court case of South Dakota v. Dole, Nelson said.

But the judge added that whether or not the test is valid, it is met in this case.

“Congress has a strong interest in making certain that federal funds do not subsidize conduct that infringes individual liberties, such as the free practice of one’s religion,” Nelson said. “The federal government also has a strong interest in monitoring the treatment of federal inmates housed in state prisons and in contributing to their rehabilitation. Congress may allocate federal funds freely, then, to protect the free exercise of religion and to promote rehabilitation. If the Supreme Court has in fact imposed a low-threshold relatedness test, RLUIPA satisfies it.”

Nor is there any impediment found in the First Amendment, Nelson said, which bars government meddling in the free exercise of religion. Protecting the exercise of religion in institutions from unwarranted and substantial infringement is a legitimate secular purpose, the primary effect of the law neither advances nor prohibits religion, and there is no excessive entanglement with religion because nothing about the law requires government officials to develop any expertise on religious practice or evaluate the merits of different beliefs, the judge said.

The case is Mayweathers v. Newland, 01-16505.


Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company