Tuesday, August 21, 2007

ADA Held Not Applicable To State Prisons- Free Exercise Issues Discussed

An interesting decision in Chase v. Baskerville, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60640 (ED VA, Aug. 2, 2007) may have an impact on religious freedom issues in prisons. The case invovles a claim by a deaf inmate under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the federal Rehabilitation Act. He argued that a Virginia prison should have provided him with an interpreter to assist him in his school work. Much of the decision focused on whether the ADA could be applied constitutionally to state prisons. That in turn, under the U.S. Supreme Court's test developed in City of Boerne v. Flores, depends on whether applying the ADA in this context is an attempt to redefine the substantive meaning of the 14th Amendment, or is merely a congruent and proportional response to identified unconstitutional conduct.

The court ultimately concluded that Title II of the ADA is not tailored to remedy likely constitutional violations in state prisons. In the course of its opinion considering whether the ADA is an appropriate response to potential prison problems the court included this observation:
Admittedly, there is some congruency between an inmate's right to the free exercise of his religion and Title II's reasonable accommodation requirement and certain due process protections. For example, the lack of a handicap accessible chapel may substantially burden a disabled inmate in the free exercise of his religion. Thus, the imposition of an accessibility requirement is facially congruent and proportional in that context with the inmate's underlying free exercise rights. Nevertheless, the strict liability imposed by the ADA in this context is not entirely congruent with the jurisprudence that "negligent acts by officials causing unintended denials of religious rights do not violate the Free Exercise Clause."