Combating Religious Discrimination And Protecting Religious Freedom

Religious Rights of Institutionalized Persons

The Civil Rights Division's Special Litigation Section is charged with enforcing federal laws protecting the rights of persons in certain state institutions, including prisons, juvenile detention facilities, mental institutions, and nursing homes.

Section 3 of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act provides that if a regulation imposes a substantial burden on the religious beliefs or practices of persons confined to certain institutions, the government must show a compelling justification, pursued through the least restrictive means. In addition to creating a private cause of action for institutionalized persons, RLUIPA also authorizes the Attorney General to bring suits to enforce this provision.

Under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division can investigate institutional conditions and file lawsuits to remedy a pattern or practice of unlawful conditions. These cases can involve deprivation of institutionalized persons' constitutional rights to religious liberty.

Some examples of cases:

  • Oakley and Columbia Training Schools in Raymond and Columbia, Mississippi: After a CRIPA investigation, the Special Litigation Section issued a findings letter reporting our finding that the schools had unconstitutionally required students to participate in religious activities against their will. The findings letter stressed that while religious activities can help further a juvenile facility's rehabilitative mission, and indeed that juveniles confined to a facility have a right under RLUIPA and the Constitution to engage in religious activities, forcing them to do so violates the Constitution. The facilities subsequently agreed to change their practices.
  • Alexander Youth Services Center, Alexander, Arkansas: This case raised the same issues as the Oakley and Columbia Training Schools case, as set forth in this findings letter. This facility also agreed to change its practices.

If you wish to file a complaint under RLUIPA or CRIPA, write to:

Special Litigation Section
U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Special Litigation Section
Washington, D.C. 20530

The Section can also be reached by telephone (202-514-6255 or toll-free at 877-218-5228) or fax (202-514-0212 or 202-514-6273).

Updated August 6, 2015

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