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Eighteen Years After its Passage, Prisons and Jails Continue to Violate RLUIPA

by Derek Gilna

After decades of complaints by prisoners that corrections officials frequently denied them the right to practice their religion, Congress took action and passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), codified at 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), RLUIPA “is a civil rights law that protects the religious freedom of persons confined to prisons, jails, and certain other institutions in which the government exerts a degree of control far greater than that which is found in civilian society.” 

As noted by the DOJ, “[a]fter hearings in which Congress found that persons residing in institutions are sometimes subject to discriminatory or arbitrary denial of the ability to practice their faiths beyond what is needed for the security and proper functioning of the institution, Congress passed RLUIPA unanimously in 2000. President Clinton signed RLUIPA into law on September 22, 2000.”

During debate on the legislation, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy acknowledged what criminal justice experts had been saying for years: “[s]incere faith and worship can be an indispensable part of rehabilitation.” 

The DOJ has issued guidance on the parameters of RLUIPA: “Where a correctional institution’s regulation imposes a substantial burden on a prisoner’s religious exercise, the regulation violates RLUIPA unless the institution demonstrates both: (1) that a compelling governmental interest necessitates the imposition of the burden; and (2) that the regulation is the least restrictive means to further that interest. Thus, even regulations that serve a compelling interest violate RLUIPA if they are not the least restrictive means to further a compelling interest.”

The importance of the “least restrictive” part of the law cannot be overstated. Prior to RLUIPA, corrections officials often unnecessarily restricted religious practices in the name of “institutional security.” The law now compels those officials to more carefully weigh the consequences of policies or practices that negatively impact a prisoner’s religious rights.

As with all complaints brought by prisoners in federal court, pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act they must first exhaust available administrative remedies before filing suit.

Christopher Ware, incarcerated in a Louisiana state prison, practiced the Rastafari religion – which required him to grow his hair into dreadlocks. When prison officials ordered him to cut his hair, he declined and filed a federal lawsuit.

The district court denied Ware relief, but that decision was reversed on appeal. As stated by the Fifth Circuit in July 2017, “Congress enacted RLUIPA to address ‘frivolous or arbitrary’ barriers impeding [inmates’] religious exercise....” Davis v. Davis, 826 F.3d 258, 264 (5th Cir. 2016) (quoting Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709 (2005)). The Supreme Court recently emphasized the expansive nature of RLUIPA’s provisions: “Congress enacted RLUIPA ... ‘in order to provide very broad protection for religious liberty.’ Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853, 859 (2015) (quoting Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S.Ct. 2751, 2760 (2014)).”

The appellate court concluded the Louisiana DOC had “failed to meet its burden under RLUIPA of showing both that its grooming policies serve a compelling interest and that they are the least restrictive means of serving any such interest,” and therefore entered judgment for Ware. See: Ware v. La. Dep’t of Corr., 866 F.3d 263 (5th Cir. 2017) [PLN, April 2018, p.25].

The Idaho Department of Correction also ran afoul of RLUIPA by denying a kosher diet to Jewish prisoners. They filed suit in federal court, resulting in an August 2017 settlement. The state must now offer kosher meals in its prisons. See: Bartlett v. Atencio, U.S.D.C. (D. Idaho), Case No. 1:17-cv-00191-CWD. [PLN, April 2018, p.48].

According to ACLU Idaho executive director Leo Morales, “Jewish prisoners will now have access to nutritious meals that meet their religious needs, in the same manner in which other prisoners would have based on their religious needs.”

Numerous other courts have held that prisoners are entitled to food that conforms to the tenants of their religious beliefs, such as kosher or halal meals.

In a March 2017 Fourth Circuit opinion, Zackary Allen Blankenship claimed the North Carolina prison system’s denial of his right to have access to a Bible when he was sent to a county jail violated his rights under RLUIPA. The Court of Appeals wrote, “it is undisputed that Blankenship’s activities qualify as religious exercise and that he sincerely holds his beliefs.... Thus, the burden shifts to Defendants to show that the challenged policy ‘[is] in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest[] and ... [is] the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.’” See: Blankenship v. Setzer, 681 Fed. Appx. 274 (4th Cir. 2017).

On August 12, 2014, an Iowa federal district court held that Moorish Science Temple prisoners had the same right to celebrate Ramadan as Islamic prisoners approved by the Muslim prison chaplain. 

Iowa state prisoners Michael Williams-El and James Blair-Bey were not allowed to participate in Ramadan after Imam Taha Tawil, the Islamic consultant for the Iowa Department of Corrections, told prison officials that their membership in the Moorish Science Temple made them ineligible. Based solely on Tawil’s assessment, prison officials refused to authorize Ramadan accommodations – a nightly sack meal, a hot meal and time to meet together in the prison chapel – for Williams-El and Blair-Bey. They filed a federal complaint challenging the denial of those accommodations.

The district court held the DOC had violated the plaintiffs’ rights under RLUIPA and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The sincerity of their religious beliefs, including that they must observe Ramadan, was not in question and no security issues had been raised by prison officials. An “inquiry into what is or is not central to a particular religion has no place in a RLUIPA analysis,” the court wrote; rather, it should be based on the individual’s sincerely held personal religious beliefs. 

Therefore, the district court ordered the DOC to provide the requested Ramadan accommodations, though prison officials were not required to allow the plaintiffs to congregate with approved Islamic prisoners celebrating Ramadan. The court authorized $3,800 in attorney fees plus $285.06 in costs to court-appointed counsel Rockne Cole, who represented Williams-El and Blair-Bey in the later parts of the case. See: Williams-El v. State of Iowa, U.S.D.C. (D. Iowa), Case No. 4:12-cv-00299-TJS.

As emphasized by the DOJ, “Courts have applied RLUIPA to protect the religious practices of a wide variety of religious traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Native American religions, and Sikhism. RLUIPA’s protections also extend to subgroups within more widely-known religious traditions.” Other faiths that have found protection under RLUIPA or the First Amendment include Wicca, Satanism and Asatru. Even the rights of Humanist prisoners are protected. [See: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.54; May 2016, p.34].

However, the right of prisoners to exercise their religious beliefs under RLUIPA is not absolute.

In February 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to stay the execution of Alabama prisoner Domineque Hakim Marcelle Ray, who claimed that prison officials had refused his request to have an imam – a Muslim religious advisor – present in the execution chamber. Instead, prison policy required a Christian chaplain to attend executions. Ray argued claims under RLUIPA as well as the First Amendment. Although the Eleventh Circuit granted a stay of execution, the Supreme Court lifted the stay. 

“Ray has put forward a powerful claim that his religious rights will be violated at the moment the state puts him to death,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in dissent. “A Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites,” she added. “But if an inmate practices a different religion – whether Islam, Judaism, or any other – he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side. That treatment goes against the establishment clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality.” See: Dunn v. Ray, 2019 U.S. LEXIS 817 (2019).

Ray was executed on February 7, 2019. 


Additional sources:,,,,,, The Daily Caller,

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Related legal case

Dunn v. Ray