Supreme Court Limits Religious Rights in Prisons

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday (April 20) that prisoners who charge they are being deprived of their religious rights in jail can’t sue the state for monetary damages.

The ruling came about from the case of Harvey Leroy Sossamon III, a Texas prisoner who sued that he was illegally prevented from attending religious services. Attorneys for Sossamon argued that the prison’s denial of access to worship services violated RLUIPA (the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000), a statute which protects inmates’ right to practice their faith.

A broad collection of religious and civil liberty organizations (including the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Jewish Committee and the Interfaith Alliance Foundation) joined D.C.-based religious liberty organization, The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Freedom, in drafting an amicus brief in opposition to the Supreme Court decision.

From the brief (PDF):

“Without a damage remedy, RLUIPA could not effectively deter prison misconduct.

The availability of monetary relief was and remains a critical component of the remedy that Congress crafted, and a necessary deterrent of the activity over which Congress was concerned…non-monetary remedies are woefully inadequate on their own to safeguard prisoners’ rights.The fundamental problem is that it is all too easy for prison officials to moot prisoners’ claims for injunctive relief and, if no damages are available, avoid judicial scrutiny of misconduct.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote:

“That monetary damages are ‘appropriate relief’ is, in my view, self-evident. Under general remedies principles, the usual remedy for a violation of a legal right is damages.”

Many other progressive institutions and individuals have also filed briefs opposing the ruling (see a complete list at, which they argue sets a dangerous precedent for violation of both religious freedom and the separation of Church and State.


Related Stories:

In Prisons, Women Are Shackled While Giving Birth

SC Jail Lets Inmates Only Read Bible

Prison Libraries Ban Literature, Raise Controversy

Sikh Soldier Wins Religious Accomodation


Photo credit: Joe Gratz via flickr


Anne H.
Anne H6 years ago

They aren't saying they can't practice their basic religions just that they cannot sue over them. They can still demand them they just cannot profit from it. This does make sense.

Prisoners should be allowed to practice basic tennants of a religion. They would need to earn anything extra. They should be allowed their basice nutritional category such as vegan, vegetarian, kosher. As a prisoner we must prove this need. This is the punishment for our breaking the rules of society.

William Y.
William Y6 years ago

@ Bernadette P, how idealistic of you. What has religion got to do with morality?

Bernadette P.
Berny p6 years ago

IF they were religious...they would not have committed a crime!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

John T.
John T6 years ago

Quite frankly, after reading the article and the BJC Amicus brief, I'm still at a loss to figure out just how the prisoner was damaged.
BJC says he's a Christian by faith. Fine.
What was being denied him?
Not ALL religious acts/paraphernalia can be accommodated in prison. As a far out example, peyote is recognized as a legal drug in religious services. 3 states have even gone so far as to remove it from the "controlled substance" prohibitions.
Those same states do not allow the importation of peyote in to prisons for services.
There are / have to be some limits.
Was this prisoner denied something as dangerous as peyote or was he denied something much less 'sinister'?
The story doesn't tell us.
I believe prisoners should be allowed to sue if they are truly being denied even the simple accoutrements of their religion.
If, on the other hand, they're suing because they don't like the wine being served in Communion, that won't fly.

John Doe
james rico6 years ago

faye you seem to think that vegans in prison have no right to a vegan diet.. that is cruel and amounts to more punishment than they would recieve than the crime they commited in many cases. because that could kill them and force them into the hands of visicous medical personell. and have drugs forced on them i myself have been a strict vegan for only 4years now and if i had to eat animal foods because i was denied a reasonable vegan form of proteins like raw tree nuts or beans or whole grains and a wide varity of fruits and veggies i would get sick and drugs forced on me by MD/S would kill me. that in itself would be an illegal death sentence. many of us vegans have ajusted to are diets and because have we get sick if we stray off and also prison is by its nature a very violent stressfull place and if your nutrition is not maximum you can die from your latent diseases that you were able to suppress by your vegan diet one size does not fit all or can/t you see and acept that.

Faye S.
Faye S6 years ago

They have about as much right to sue over religious rights as they do to sue for not being offered a vegan diet...and that's about zero rights in my book. Some may disagree but prison is a place you get put for punnishment...they already have more fringe benefits than many people on the outside.

Danielle Herie
Danielle Herie6 years ago


Roxane Connor
Roxane Connor6 years ago

They may lose some rights whilst in prison but it should be the same rights evenly across the religious board.Certain religions should not be given preference and leeway over others.

Geoffrey Y.
Geoffrey Y6 years ago

Prisoners shound have their religious rights but not to sue. It does not meaning our legal system is prefect it also does not meaning they have more rights than the the normal one who in gernal repect to our rules.

Elizabeth K.
Elizabeth K6 years ago

Lynn, throwing someone a bible would indeed be a punishment.