A Georgia prison inmate has won an important court ruling in his bid to wear a yarmulke at all times and be served kosher food.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta unanimously upheld as constitutional a law passed by Congress that requires state prisons receiving federal funds to refrain from restricting prisoners’ in the exercise of their religion. The ruling, handed down Thursday, was a victory for Ralph Benning, a 40-year-old “Torah-observant Jew” serving a life sentence for murder in Fulton County.
“Prisoners should not be forced to check their religion, along with their civilian clothing, at the jailhouse doorstep,” said Jared Leland, counsel for the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, a public-interest law firm in Washington that represents Benning.
“Religion is often the root of rehabilitation, and so prisoners should and must be free to practice,” Leland said.
The Georgia Attorney General’s Office had asked the federal appeals court to find the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act violates the Establishment Clause and the Tenth Amendment, which reserves to the states rights not delegated to the federal government.
But Judge Bill Pryor wrote that Congress “unambiguously” conditioned the award of federal funds for state prisons on the accommodation of the religious exercise of prisoners, provided that accommodation does not endorse a particular religious viewpoint.
“Both the protection of the religious exercise of prisoners and their rehabilitation are rational goals of Congress, and those goals are related to the use of federal funds for state prisons,” Pryor said.
In February, President Bush thwarted a Democratic filibuster and put Pryor, the former Alabama Attorney General, on the bench with a controversial recess appointment.
Benning’s case now returns to U.S. Magistrate James Graham in Brunswick, who must decide whether to require the state prison system to allow Benning to wear a yarmulke and be served kosher food.
Russ Willard, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said his office has advised the Department of Corrections about the ruling. “We’re currently consulting with them about what the state’s next step will be,” he said.
The 11th Circuit’s ruling upholding the religious accommodation law for prisoners is the latest victory for the 2000 act. Federal appeals courts in Richmond, San Francisco and Chicago also have rejected challenges to the statute.
Only the federal appeals court in Cincinnati has found the law unconstitutional. That case, brought by inmates who observe polytheistic religions and who declare themselves Satanists, was recently accepted for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.