ACLU of Virginia case challenging prison grooming policy can now proceed.The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled today that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act does not violate the constitutional mandate for separation of church and state. The appellate court ruling reverses a lower court holding that the law impermissibly advances religion by affording extra protections to prisoners’ religious rights but not their other fundamental rights.
Passed by Congress in 2000, RLUIPA prohibits state prisons and other institutions that receive federal funds from interfering with the right of inmates to practice their religion, unless the institution can cite a security or similarly important reason for the prohibition.
The Fourth Circuit found that RLUIPA did not advance religion but merely relieved the burden imprisonment places on religious practices.
The case, Madison v. Riter, was brought by Ira Madison, an inmate at Buckingham Correctional Center who is a member of the 100 year-old Church of God and Saints of Christ. In August 2001, Madison filed a RLUIPA lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Roanoke to compel Buckingham prison officials to provide him with a meal consistent with his religious beliefs. The meal, called the Common Fare Diet, is typically made available to Islamic and Jewish inmates. The ACLU and other rights groups filed amicus briefs supporting RLUIPA.
“This is an important victory for those who are incarcerated in Virginia’s prisons,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “For now, at least, they can be assured that their religious rights will not be taken away without a very good reason.”
“We were surprised that the Attorney General sought to strike down a law guaranteeing that those who have violated the rules of society will have access to religion if they want it,” added Willis.
As a result of today’s ruling, another Virginia RLUIPA case can proceed. The ACLU of Virginia filed a lawsuit last February challenging the Virginia Department of Corrections’ policy requiring all inmates to cut their hair short and shave their facial hair. That case, in which the ACLU represents Muslim and Rastafarian prisoners whose religion requires beards or long hair, had been put on hold pending the decision from the appeals court on the constitutionality of RLUIPA.
A copy of the decision can be found online at www.ca4.uscourts.gov and select Opinions.
Contacts: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022 Rebecca Glenberg, Legal Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022