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Fourth Circuit: Virginia Not Immune from RLUIPA Suit

On December 29, 2006, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was a valid exercise of Congress’ spending powers and that the State of Virginia was subject to its requirements because the state had voluntarily accepted federal corrections funds. The appellate court further held that Virginia could be sued under RLUIPA but was immune from monetary damages.
Ira Madison, a Hebrew Israelite and member of the Church of God and Saints of Christ, sued Virginia prison officials in August 2001 under RLUIPA, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a), contending that he was denied a Kosher diet. Under Section 3 of RLUIPA, prison officials may not substantially burden a prisoner’s religious exercise unless doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.
After re-deciding the case on remand, the district court ultimately held that RLUIPA was a valid exercise of Congress’ power under the Spending Clause and concluded that “by accepting federal funds, Virginia had waived its sovereign immunity for RLUIPA damage claims.” See: Madison v. Riter, 411 F.Supp.2d 645 (WD VA 2006). The state appealed.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded. The Court of Appeals first noted that the Spending Clause is a “‘permissible method of encouraging a State to conform to federal policy choices,’ because ‘the ultimate decision’ of whether to conform is retained by the States – who can always decline the federal grant.” Though this power is not unlimited, in this case all five requirements delineated in South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203 (1987) were fulfilled.
With regard to Virginia’s claim of sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, the Fourth Circuit reasoned that although RLUIPA’s conditions are clearly stated, it “in no way implies that a state has consented to each and every remedy to which it conceivably could be subjected.” Thus, although RLUIPA “unambiguously conditions federal prison funds on a State’s consent to suit,” the statute “makes no reference to monetary relief – or even to sovereign immunity generally.”
In sum, the Court of Appeals held that Virginia was not immune from suit under RLUIPA as it voluntarily received federal prison funds, but was immune from monetary damages due to the statute’s lack of textual detail regarding “appropriate relief.” See: Madison v. Commonwealth of Virginia, 474 F.3d 118 (4th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Madison v. Commonwealth of Virginia