A federal appeals court Friday declared unconstitutional a 3-year-old law that gives inmates the right to gather for worship and follow religious dietary practices.
The federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, prohibits governments from limiting the religious freedom of people in prisons and other federally funded institutions unless there is a compelling reason.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the law violates the separation of church and state because it has “the primary effect of advancing religion.”
The ruling by a three-judge panel applies only to Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee. Several other federal courts around the country have found the law to be constitutional.
In seeking to have the law thrown out, Ohio prison officials said they were worried that inmates were using the law as a guise for gang meetings.
“What we need to be able to do is regulate group behavior, and this ruling certainly makes it a lot more feasible to do that,” said Greg Trout, counsel for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
David Goldberger, who is representing 156 Ohio prisoners in the case, said he may appeal. “We think that it’s a mistaken reading of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” he said.
The ruling does not affect a part of the law that gives religious organizations a measure of protection against zoning regulations.
An appeals court in California previously upheld the law, ruling in favor of Muslim inmates who claimed they were penalized for attending Friday afternoon religious services.
Judges in five federal appeals circuits and two U.S. District courts have said the law is constitutional, while the 6th Circuit and at least two federal district rulings say it is not, the judges noted in Friday’s ruling.
“In a conflict like this, that’s a very good road to the (U.S.) Supreme Court,” said Jesse Choper, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
“There are good arguments against the conclusion the 6th Circuit reached,” he said.
The Justice Department was reviewing the decision and had no comment, spokesman Charles Miller said.
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