CINCINNATI A 3-year-old federal law aimed at giving inmates the right to gather for worship or follow religious dietary practices is unconstitutional, an appeals court has ruled.
The law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, prohibits government from limiting the religious freedom of people in prisons and other institutions that receive federal funds unless there's a compelling reason.
A unanimous three-judge panel of 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."
Ohio prison officials were concerned that prisoners were using the law as a guise for gang meetings, posing a security threat, state lawyers argued in seeking to have the law thrown out.
"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, chief legal counsel for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
The Nov. 7 ruling in Cutter v. Wilkinson reversed a lower court's February 2002 decision. The case now goes back to the federal court in Columbus, barring further appeals. The 6th Circuit's ruling applies only to the states in its jurisdiction: Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee.
David Goldberger, an Ohio State University law professor representing 156 Ohio prisoners in the case, said he is considering asking the full 6th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling.
"We think that it's a mistaken reading of the establishment clause of the First Amendment," Goldberger said.
The ruling doesn't affect the part of the law applying to how religious organizations can use their property. That part was intended to keep local zoning officials from needlessly limiting where places of worship can be built.
The law has been the subject of legal battles in other states, including California. An appeals court there said the law was constitutional, 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 other lower courts say it's not, the judges noted in the Nov. 7 ruling. On Oct. 30, the 7th Circuit upheld the constitutionality of RLUIPA in Charles v. Verhagen, a case involving a Muslim prisoner in Wisconsin who argued for the right to possess prayer oil.
"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, Berkeley.
"There are good arguments against the conclusion the 6th Circuit reached," he said.
The Department of Justice was reviewing the decision and had no comment, spokesman Charles Miller said.
The law actually could hinder some religious observances by tying up the time of religious administrators who coordinate religious services and programming in Ohio's prisons, Trout said.
"Those persons were becoming embroiled in legal disputes rather than helping inmates practice their religion," he said.