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Law Upheld Protecting Inmates Religious Rights • Saturday December 28, 2002, Dec. 27, 2002

Dec. 27 BCN A federal appeals court in San Francisco today upheld a 2 year-old U.S. law that protects the religious freedom of prison inmates and other people in institutions.

The decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was made in a civil rights lawsuit originally filed in 1996 by a group of Muslim inmates at California State Prison, Solano.

In earlier rulings in the case, the inmates won a series of injunctions from a federal judge in Sacramento that shielded them from being penalized or losing work credits for attending religious services on Fridays.

After Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, the Muslim prisoners added a claim under the new law to their lawsuit.

The law bars government entities from imposing a burden on the exercise of religion by people in institutions unless a compelling government interest is at stake. It applies to institutions that receive federal funding.

California prison officials then argued that the law is unconstitutional. Among other claims, the California officials contended the law exceeded Congress’ authority to set conditions on federal funding grants.

But a three-judge panel of the appeals court unanimously ruled that the law was within Congress’ powers because it promotes the general welfare.

Circuit Judge Dorothy Nelson wrote, “Protecting religious worship in institutions from substantial and illegitimate burdens does promote the general welfare.”

Nelson said the measure “follows a long tradition of federal legislation designed to guard against unfair bias and infringement on fundamental freedoms.”

The panel upheld a similar ruling by a federal trial judge in Sacramento.

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