Last week, in another blow to religious freedom, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 that prison inmates (and other institutionalized persons) whose religious freedom is violated cannot sue for monetary damages under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000, despite the fact that states accept federal money to run their prisons. Although the law allows inmates to “obtain appropriate relief against a government,” the court ruled that this does not include monetary damages. In the dissenting opinion, however, Justice Sotomayor aptly stated “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.”
While Justice Clarence Thomas indicated in his majority opinion that prisoners can still sue to change prison policies, State of Belief host and Interfaith Alliance President Rev. Welton Gaddy points out that this is not enough:
“The decision seriously hinders the ability of prison inmates and other institutionalized persons to seek redress for violations of their religious freedom. It removes an important means to hold prison officials accountable to actually end violations and deter them from being repeated in the future, while at the same time curbing protections that were set in place when Congress passed RLUIPA unanimously a decade ago.”
Furthermore, even though the decision is about the half of RLUIPA pertaining to inmates’ free exercise of religion, it could likely be applied to the other half of the law as well, which addresses land use for religious organizations. So it seems this decision could have unfortunate consequences which reach far beyond this individual case and defeat the purpose of the entire law, which was originally intended to protect our country’s religious freedoms. Only time will tell.