Supreme Court limits prisoners’ right to sue
Daniel Burke, Religion News Service
April 22, 2011

Supreme Court limits prisoners’ right to sue

Supreme Court limits prisoners’ right to sue
Daniel Burke, Religion News Service
April 22, 2011


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,

Thomas noted.

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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