WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against the Berkeley County, S.C., Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Wayne DeWitt for violating the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The Berkeley County Detention Center, a component of the sheriff’s office, enforces policies that prohibit inmates from receiving virtually all expressive material and substantially burden the rights of inmates to practice their faith.
By filing the complaint, the Justice Department seeks to participate in a recently filed lawsuit challenging the detention center’s restrictive mail policies. These policies prohibit inmates from receiving any books, magazines, newspapers, religious texts or other expressive materials through the mail, in violation of the Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Further, by denying religious texts to inmates, the sheriff’s office substantially burdens religious practice in contravention of RLUIPA. Finally, the prison violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by making copies of the Bible readily available to inmates, while erecting barriers to inmates seeking access to texts used in other religious traditions.
“The freedom to practice one’s faith is among our most cherished rights, and the Justice Department is committed to defending that right. RLUIPA has proven to be a powerful tool in combating religious discrimination and ensuring religious freedom for all individuals,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.
“The county’s religious intolerance tramples our freedom of religion which is a cornerstone of the United States Constitution,” said William N. Nettles, U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina. “We look forward to the privilege of defending the religious freedom afforded to all people in the United States by the Constitution.”
The Justice Department filed its lawsuit to enforce the sheriff’s office’s compliance with the First Amendment and RLUIPA. The First Amendment protects the right of prisoners to receive a reasonable amount of expressive material, and forbids government institutions from favoring certain religions over others. RLUIPA protects the religious freedom of persons confined to institutions such as prisons, mental health facilities and state-run nursing homes. RLUIPA was enacted by both houses of Congress unanimously and signed into law on September 22, 2000. The law also addresses religious discrimination in land use. In the 10 years since its passage, RLUIPA has helped secure the ability of thousands of individuals and institutions to practice their faiths freely and without discrimination.
More information on the Civil Rights Division’s efforts to combat religious discrimination may be found at www.justice.gov/crt .