WASHINGTON — Prison
inmates who are deprived of their religious rights cannot sue states for
monetary damages, the Supreme Court ruled April 20.
Inmate Harvey Leroy Sossamon III
said a Texas state prison
illegally prevented him from attending religious services. Sossamon had been on
cell restriction for disciplinary reasons at the time.
Sossamon alleged that the prison’s actions violated the
Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), which
protects inmates’ right to practice their faith.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, ruled
that under RLUIPA prisoners can sue to change prison policies but not seek financial
redress. Texas does not forgo its
“sovereign immunity” when it accepts federal money to run its prisons, Thomas
After Sossamon filed suit, the prison changed its policies,
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was joined by Justice Stephen
Breyer in dissenting from the majority decision, argued that RLIUPA allows prisoners
to seek “appropriate relief” for violations of the law.
Without the possibility of monetary damages, Sotomayor said,
prisoners will be forced to defend their religious rights “with one hand tied
behind their backs.”
The Baptist Joint Committee (BJC) for Religious Liberty
agreed, saying the high court’s ruling leaves prisoners with “an incomplete
remedy for vindicating their religious rights.”
“We are disappointed in the majority’s pinched view of what
was a clear congressional intent to provide prisoners broad protection for religious
liberty and a robust remedy for its violation, including monetary damages,”
said BJC Executive Director J. Brent Walker.
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