WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court today upheld the constitutionality of a federal law requiring state prisons to accommodate inmate religions.
Justices unanimously sided with Ohio inmates, including a witch and a Satanist, who had claimed they were denied access to religious literature, ceremonial items and time to worship.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which was intended to protect the rights of prisoners, is not an unconstitutional government promotion of religion.
"It confers no privileged status on any particular religious sect, and singles out no bona fide faith for disadvantageous treatment," Ginsburg wrote in Cutter v. Wilkinson, 03-9877.
The law requires states that receive federal money to accommodate prisoners' religious beliefs unless wardens can show that the accommodation would be disruptive.
Opponents of the law had argued that inmate requests for particular diets, special haircuts or religious symbols could make it harder to manage prisons.
"We do not read (the law) to elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution's need to maintain order and safety," wrote Ginsburg. "We have no cause to believe that (the law) would not be applied in an appropriately balanced way, without sensitivity to security concerns."
Justices left open the door for a future challenge, on grounds that RLUIPA as applied overburdens prisons.
Today's decision overturns a ruling by the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had struck down part of the law on grounds it violated the separation of church and state.