Supreme Court sides with inmates in religion case


Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2005 at 11:31 p.m.
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court sided with a witch, a Satanist and a racial separatist Tuesday, upholding a federal law requiring state prisons to accommodate the religious affiliations of inmates.
The three Ohio prisoners sued under the 2000 federal law, claiming they were denied access to religious literature and ceremonial items and denied time to worship.
The law says states that receive federal money must accommodate prisoners' religious beliefs, with such things as special haircuts or meals, unless wardens can show that the government has a compelling reason not to.
The court's unanimous ruling addressed a narrow issue: whether the law as written is an unconstitutional government promotion of religion. It is not, justices decided, leaving the door open to future legal challenges on other grounds.
''Religion plays a vital role in rehabilitation,'' said Derek Gaubatz, director of litigation for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious liberty law firm that represents inmates.
Many states have contested the law on grounds that inmate requests could make it harder to manage prisons, and the court appeared concerned as well.
The law ''does not elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution's need to maintain order and safety,'' Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said from the bench in announcing the decision.
Ginsburg said judges who handle inmate cases should give deference to prison administrators.

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