Monday, May 24, 2010

Supreme Court Grants Cert. In RLUIPA Damages Case

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning granted certiorari in Sossamon v. Texas, (Docket No. 08-1438, cert. granted 5/24/2010). (Order List.) The suit was brought by an inmate who objected to the prison's policy of prohibiting congregational worship in the prison's chapel. He claimed that alternative worship venues do not give him access to Christian symbols or furnishings such as an altar or cross. The Supreme Court's grant of review was limited to the question of: "Whether an individual may sue a State or state official in his official capacity for damages for violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. §2000cc et seq. (2000 ed.)."

In the case, the 5th Circuit held (see prior posting) that official-capacity damage actions are barred by the state's sovereign immunity. Agreeing with the 4th Circuit, it concluded that RLUIPA did not clearly alert the state of Texas that it would waive sovereign immunity for damage actions by accepting federal funding. The 5th Circuit also held that damages under RLUIPA are not available in suits against officials in their individual capacities. It reasoned that because RLUIPA was enacted under Congress' Spending Clause Powers, only the governmental recipient of the grant may be liable for a violation. The Supreme Court did not grant cert. to review that port of the holding. SCOTUS blog has links to the petitions for and against cert. and amicus filings in the case.