ACLU, others filed amicus brief arguing that RLUIPA passes constitutional muster

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond will hear oral arguments tomorrow morning in a case challenging the constitutionality of The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. 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 prison can cite a security or similarly important reason for the prohibition.
The case being argued tomorrow 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 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.
In defending the Department of Corrections’ refusal to provide the meal, the Virginia Attorney General argued that RLUIPA grants special status to religious exercises in institutions and thereby violates separation of church and state. Judge James C. Turk agreed, and in January of this year issued the first ruling in the nation striking down RLUIPA.
“RLUIPA is an important law because it recognizes that prison officials, in their zeal to punish, regularly deny inmates their basic religious rights,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “It must be seen as ironic that the Attorney General is attacking a law that protects religious freedom by arguing that it violates separation of church and state.”
The ACLU of Virginia and the National ACLU filed an amicus brief in support of RLUIPA’s constitutionality. Joining the ACLU on the brief are the Aleph Institute, American Jewish Congress, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, Christian Legal Society, and People for the American Way.
In a separate legal action, the ACLU of Virginia filed a RLUIPA lawsuit in February challenging the Virginia Department of Corrections’ policy that requires all inmates to cut their hair short and shave their beards. That case, in which the ACLU represents Muslim and Rastafarian prisoners, has been put on hold pending the decision from the appeals court on the constitutionality of RLUIPA.

Contacts: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022 Rebecca K. Glenberg, Legal Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022