Section 3, codified at 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000cc-1(a)(1)-(2), of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000cc et seq., provides in part that no state or local government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution unless the government shows that the burden furthers a compelling governmental interest and does so by the least restrictive means. The RLUIPA defines "religious exercise" to include any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief. 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000cc-5(7)(A). 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000cc-1(a)(1)-(2) applies when the substantial burden on religious exercise is imposed in a program or activity that receives Federal financial assistance, or the substantial burden affects, or removal of that substantial burden would affect, commerce with foreign nations, among the several States, or with Indian tribes. 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000cc-1(b)(1)-(2). A person may assert a violation of RLUIPA as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government.
Section 3 of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA or Act) 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." Petitioners, current and former inmates of Ohio state institutions, alleged, inter alia, that respondent prison officials violated § 3 by failing to accommodate petitioners' exercise of their "non-mainstream" religions in a variety of ways. Respondents moved to dismiss that claim, arguing that § 3, on its face, improperly advances religion in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Rejecting that argument, the District Court stated that RLUIPA permits safety and security -- undisputedly compelling state interests -- to outweigh an inmate's claim to a religious accommodation. On the thin record before it, the court could not find that enforcement of RLUIPA inevitably would compromise prison security. Reversing on interlocutory appeal, the Sixth Circuit held that § 3 impermissibly advances religion by giving greater protection to religious rights than to other constitutionally protected rights, and suggested that affording religious prisoners superior rights might encourage prisoners to become religious. The Court reversed the circuit court's judgment.
Is Section 3 of RLUIPA permissible accommodation that is not barred by the Establishment Clause?
The Court held that § 2000cc-1, on its face, qualified as a permissible accommodation that was not barred by the Establishment Clause. Section 2000cc-1 was compatible with the Establishment Clause because it alleviated exceptional government-created burdens on private religious exercise. Further, § 2000cc-1 did not elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution's need to maintain order and safety. Finally, the Court found that § 2000cc-1 did not differentiate among bona fide faiths because it conferred no privileged status on any particular religious sect. The circuit court misread the Court's precedents to require invalidation of § 2000cc-1 as impermissibly advancing religion by giving greater protection to religious rights than to other constitutionally protected rights.