Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Supreme Court Unanimously Upholds RLUIPA in Cutter v. Wilkinson

The US Supreme Court this morning in Cutter v. Wilkinson unanimously upheld the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act against a challenge to its constitutionality. The case involved a facial challenge to the Act's application to prisons. Justice Ginsburg's opinion for the Court is available online. So is Justice Thomas' concurring opinion. Here are excerpts from the Court's syllabus (omissions of text are not indicated):

Section 3 of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), provides in part: "No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution," unless the burden furthers "a compelling governmental interest," and does so by "the least restrictive means."

Section 3 of RLUIPA, on its face, qualifies as a permissible accommodation that is not barred by the Establishment Clause. (a) Foremost, § 3 is compatible with the Establishment Clause because it alleviates exceptional government-created burdens on private religious exercise. Furthermore, the Act on its face does not founder on shoals the Court's prior decisions have identified: Properly applying RLUIPA, courts must take adequate account of the burdens a requested accommodation may impose on nonbeneficiaries, and they must be satisfied that the Act's prescriptions are and will be administered neutrally among different faiths.

Section 3 covers state-run institutions -- mental hospitals, prisons, and the like -- in which the government exerts a degree of control unparalleled in civilian society and severely disabling to private religious exercise. RLUIPA thus protects institutionalized persons who are unable freely to attend to their religious needs and are therefore dependent on the government's permission and accommodation for exercise of their religion. But the Act does not elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution's need to maintain order and safety. An accommodation must be measured so that it does not override other significant interests. There is no reason to believe that RLUIPA would not be applied in an appropriately balanced way, with particular sensitivity to security concerns.

While the Act adopts a "compelling interest" standard, "context matters" in the application of that standard. Lawmakers supporting RLUIPA were mindful of the urgency of discipline, order, safety, and security in penal institutions and anticipated that courts would apply the Act's standard with due deference to prison administrators' experience and expertise.

Finally, RLUIPA does not differentiate among bona fide faiths. It confers no privileged status on any particular religious sect.

In upholding § 3, the Court emphasizes that respondents have raised a facial challenge and have not contended that applying RLUIPA would produce unconstitutional results in any specific case. There is no reason to anticipate that abusive prisoner litigation will overburden state and local institutions. However, should inmate requests for religious accommodations become excessive, impose unjustified burdens on other institutionalized persons, or jeopardize an institution's effective functioning, the facility would be free to resist the imposition. In that event, adjudication in as-applied challenges would be in order.