Cutter v. Wilkinson Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Prisoners (P) in Ohio filed suit against the prison officials (D) on the ground that a federal law violation was occurring when the prisoners were refused permission to practice their own religions including Satanism, Wicca and Asatru. The prison officials pleaded that the Act in question was equivalent to government furtherance of religion and in violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause which forbids such advocacy or favor.

Facts of the case

“The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (2000, RLUIPA) prohibited government from imposing a substantial burden on prisoners’ religious exercise, unless the burden furthered a “”compelling government interest.”” Prisoners in Ohio alleged in federal district court that prison officials violated RLUIPA by failing to accomodate the inmates’ exercise of their “”nonmainstream”” religions. The prison officials argued that the act improperly advanced religion and thus violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause (which prohibited government from making laws “”respecting an establishment of religion””). The district court rejected that argument and ruled for the inmates. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.”


“Is the federal law that prevents government from&nbsp

  • placing limitations on the exercise of a prisoner’s religion a violation of the Establishment Clause?”


    “(Ginsberg, J.) No. A federal law which prevents any government restriction from being placed on the right of prisoners to exercise their religion does not violate the Establishment Clause. RLUIPA only accommodates the free exercise of the prisoners’ rights, which is in accordance with the First Amendment. The Act was meant to reduce the restriction already present in prison on the exercise&nbsp

  • of religious freedom, and does not make any distinction between the mainstream and non-mainstream religions in this matter. The Act would only be unconstitutional if religious prisoners were placed in a favored treatment class, or if religious freedom conflicted with security enforcements, which is not the question in this case. The decision is reversed and the case remanded.”


    The Court held that § 2000cc-1 , on its face, qualified as a permissible accommodation that was not barred by the Establishment Clause . Section 2000cc-1 was compatible with the Establishment Clause because it alleviated exceptional government-created burdens on private religious exercise. Further, § 2000cc-1 did not elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution’s need to maintain order and safety. Finally, the Court found that § 2000cc-1 did not differentiate among bona fide faiths because it conferred no privileged status on any particular religious sect. The circuit court misread the Court’s precedents to require invalidation of § 2000cc-1 as impermissibly advancing religion by giving greater protection to religious rights than to other constitutionally protected rights.

    • Case Brief: 2005
    • Petitioner: Jon B. Cutter, et al.
    • Respondent: Reginald Wilkinson, Director, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, et al.
    • Decided by: Rehnquist Court

    Citation: 544 US 709 (2005)
    Granted Oct 12, 2004
    Argued: Mar 21, 2005
    Decided: May 31, 2005