WASHINGTON — A federal law that was intended, in part, to protect the religious rights of prison inmates bars most lawsuits that seek money from states that violate the law, the Supreme Court held Wednesday in a 6-2 decision.
The majority said that inmates may file suit to force states to change their policies, but without the threat of monetary damages that might cause states to speed those changes.
The decision was a blow to the Obama administration and Christian groups, which warned that a ruling against the inmates would undermine the effectiveness of the 11-year-old Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
According to the Supreme Court’s opinion, inmate Harvey Sossamon challenged Texas prison policies that barred him from attending religious services while on cell restriction for disciplinary infractions and prevented use of the prison chapel for worship services.
Sossamon claimed the policies violated RLUIPA because they denied him the chance to practice his Christian faith.
Texas raised a sovereign immunity defense, but Sossamon claimed the state’s acceptance of federal funds constituted a waiver of sovereign immunity because RLUIPA expressly authorizes “appropriate relief against a government.”
The trial court and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Sossaman’s argument, finding the language was too ambiguous to constitute a waiver of sovereign immunity.
The Supreme Court took the case to resolve a conflict in the federal circuit courts of appeal. While the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and other circuits agree with the 5th Circuit’s position, the 11th Circuit did not.
The high court affirmed the 5th Circuit’s decision in Sossaman’s case.
“We conclude that States, in accepting federal funding, do not consent to waive their sovereign immunity to private suits for money damages under RLUIPA because no statute expressly and unequivocally includes such a waiver,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the matter.
The case is Sossamon v. Texas et al., No. 08-1438.
Inmates’ rights are one of two areas covered by RLUIPA. Religious institutions also use the law to challenge adverse land use decisions.
The Sossamon opinion was the only one issued by the Supreme Court on Wednesday. Separately, the court refused to immediately intervene in a disputed election for a juvenile court judgeship in Ohio.
It denied a request by the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati and the Republican candidate to stop proceedings in a federal court in Cincinnati pending a possible appeal. Those proceedings could result in counting ballots that could swing the November election to Democrat Tracie Hunter.
Republican John Williams now leads Hunter by 23 votes out of 230,000 votes cast.
An appeals court upheld a ruling that provisional ballots improperly cast because of poll-worker errors should be counted. It sent the case back for argument on whether there was enough evidence of poll worker error to count some disputed ballots.
The Associated Press and Lawyers USA, a sister publication of The Daily Record, contributed to this report.