Saturday, November 8, 2003

Ohio wins round in dispute over inmate religious rules

By John Nolan
The Associated Press

CINCINNATI - A 3-year-old federal law aimed at giving inmates the right to gather for worship or follow religious dietary practices is unconstitutional, an appeals court ruled Friday.

The law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, prohibits governments from limiting the religious freedom of people in prisons and other institutions that receive federal funds unless there's a compelling reason.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the law violated the constitutional clause stating "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The law "has the primary effect of advancing religion," Judge Ronald Gilman wrote.

Ohio prison officials were concerned that prisoners were using the law as a guise for gang meetings, posing a security threat, state lawyers argued in seeking to have the law thrown out.

"What we need to be able to do is regulate group behavior, and this ruling certainly makes it a lot more feasible to do that," said Greg Trout, chief legal counsel for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

The ruling by a three-judge appeals panel reversed a U.S. District Court ruling in February 2002. The case now goes back to the federal court in Columbus, barring further appeals. The appeals court ruling applies only to the states in its jurisdiction: Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee.

David Goldberger, an Ohio State University law professor representing 156 Ohio prisoners in the case, said he is considering asking the full appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling.

"We think that it's a mistaken reading of the establishment clause of the First Amendment," Goldberger said.

The ruling doesn't affect the part of the law applying to how religious organizations can use their property. That part was intended to keep local zoning officials from needlessly limiting where places of worship can be built.

The law has been the subject of legal battles in other states, including California. An appeals court there said the law was constitutional, ruling in favor of Muslim inmates who claimed they were penalized for attending Friday afternoon religious services.

Judges in five federal appeals circuits and two U.S. District courts have said the law is constitutional, while the 6th Circuit and at least two federal district rulings say it's not, the judges noted in Friday's ruling.

The Department of Justice was reviewing the decision and had no comment, spokesman Charles Miller said.

The law actually could hinder some religious observances by tying up the time of religious administrators who coordinate religious services and programming in Ohio's prisons, Trout said.

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