Cutter v. Wilkinson

PETITIONER: Jon B. Cutter, et al.
RESPONDENT: Reginald Wilkinson, Director, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, et al.
LOCATION: Meramec River

DOCKET NO.: 03-9877
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 544 US 709 (2005)
GRANTED: Oct 12, 2004
ARGUED: Mar 21, 2005
DECIDED: May 31, 2005

Douglas R. Cole - argued the cause for Respondent Wilkinson
David Goldberger - argued the cause for petitioners
David A. Goldberger - argued the cause for Petitioners
Paul D. Clement - argued the cause for Respondent United States, supporting petitioners

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.


Did a federal law prohibiting government from burdening prisoners' religious exercise violate the First Amendment's establishment clause?

Media for Cutter v. Wilkinson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 21, 2005 in Cutter v. Wilkinson

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 31, 2005 in Cutter v. Wilkinson

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in Cutter versus Wilkinson will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

This case concerns Section 3 of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 acronym RLUIPA.

Section 3 provides in key part, "no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution unless the burden furthers to compelling government interest" and does so by "the least restrictive means."

Enacted pursuant to federal authority under the Spending and Commerce Clauses, the Act covers states and their subdivisions.

Plaintiffs below petitioners here are current and former inmates of institutions operated by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

They assert their true belief in non mainstream religions, the Satanist, Wicca and Asatru religions and the Church of Jesus Christ Christian.

They complain that Ohio prison officials, respondents here in violation of RLUIPA, have failed to accommodate their religious exercise in a variety of ways.

In response to petitioner’s complaints, Ohio prison officials have mounted a facial challenge to Section 3 of RLUIPA.

The legislation they contend improperly advances religion in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Ohio officials concede for purposes of the threshold challenge they here present that the religions in questions are genuine and the inmates’ faith in them sincere.

The District Court denied the prison officials motion to dismiss petitioners’ complaints.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed holding that the portion of RLUIPA applicable to institutionalized persons violates the establishment clause.

We reverse that judgment.

Our decisions recognize that there is room for play in the joints between the two religion clauses of the First Amendment.

Some space for legislative action neither compelled by the pre exercise clause nor prohibited by the establishment clause.

Section 3 of the RLUIPA, we hold fits within the power between the two clauses on its face the Act qualifies as a permissible legislative accommodation of religion that is not barred by the Establishment Clause.

Foremost, Section 3 is compatible with the Establishment Clause because it alleviates exceptional government created burdens on religious observances.

The provision governs state run institutions, mental hospitals, prisons and the like in which the government exerts a degree of control unparalleled in civilian society and severely disabling to private religious exercise.

RLUIPA does protect institutionalized persons who are unable to exercise their religious freedom without the governments’ permission and accommodation.

RLUIPA, we have stressed, does not elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institutions’ need to maintain order and safety.

An accommodation must be measured so that it does not override other significant interest.

While the Act adopts a compelling interest least restrictive means test context matters in the application of that standard.

Law makers supporting RLUIPA were mindful of the urgency of discipline, order, safety, and security in penal institutions.

They anticipated that courts would apply the Act's standards with due deference to prison administrators’ experience an expertise.

Vital too, the Act confers no privilege status on any particular religious sect.

Accordingly, courts applying RLUIPA must be satisfied that Sections 3’s prescriptions are and will be administered neutrally among bona fide faiths.

The Sixth Circuit misread our precedent when it declared RLUIPA an impermissible advancement of religion because it gives greater protection to religious rights than to other constitutionally protected rights.

Where the Court of Appeals declaration correct in all manner of religious accommodations would fall.

Ohio, for example, could not as it now does accommodate traditionally recognized religions by providing chaplains and allowing worship services.

Ohio’s prison officials, we emphasized, have raised a facial challenge.