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Prisoners Gain Access To Religious Materials, Resolving DOJ Lawsuit

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

January 2012
Volume 50

Religious Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. Through vigorous enforcement of:

  • Federal statutes prohibiting religion-based discrimination in education, employment, housing, public facilities, and public accommodations;
  • Federal laws against arson and vandalism of houses of worship and bias crimes against people because of their faith; and
  • The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA);

the Civil Rights Division is working to protect the right of all people to practice their faiths freely and without discrimination.

Back issues of this newsletter may be found at You may also contact the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Eric W. Treene, at (202) 353-8622.


On January 10, the Civil Rights Division announced that it had entered a consent injunction resolving its lawsuit against the Berkeley County, South Carolina Sheriff's office over its denial of religious materials to prisoners incarcerated in the county's jail. The Division had filed suit in a South Carolina federal court under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment on April 12, 2011, intervening in the case of Prison Legal News v. DeWitt. The consent injunction will ensure that prisoners have access to religious materials of their respective faiths.

The suit was prompted by the Berkeley County Detention Center's policy of prohibiting detainees from receiving any books, magazines, newspapers, religious texts or other expressive materials through the mail. The First Amendment protects the right of detainees and prisoners to receive a reasonable amount of expressive material. RLUIPA protects the religious freedom of prisoners by barring policies and actions that impose a substantial burden on their religious exercise, unless the detention facility can show that its policy or action is narrowly tailored to support a compelling interest.

Under the terms of the consent injunction, the parties agreed that "detainee access to publications and religious material serves the important correctional goals of rehabilitating detainees and promoting the safety, security, and good order" of the Detention Center. The agreement allows detainees to receive publications and religious materials, unless there is a formal determination that the materials are a threat to the safety or security of the facility. The agreement specifies that permissible religious materials include "a primary religious text, such as the Christian Bible, the Torah, or Koran; devotionals, pamphlets or other religious publications; religious clothing, such as kufis or other headwear; prayer rugs, and prayer beads." The agreement also calls for training of staff and other provisions to ensure that the policy is fully implemented.

On the day the agreement was announced, Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, stated that "the Department of Justice is committed to vigorously enforcing the First Amendment and RLUIPA to ensure that freedom of expression and religious liberty remain protected. Not only will this agreement uphold the Constitution, it will also promote the safety, security and good order of Berkeley County Detention Center, assist in rehabilitating detainees, and ensure that the people of Berkeley County have confidence in the criminal justice system.

RLUIPA was enacted by both houses of Congress unanimously and signed into law on September 22, 2000. In addition to protecting the rights of persons confined to institutions such as prisons, mental health facilities and state-run nursing homes, 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. On the 10th Anniversary of RLUIPA, the Department of Justice issued a report on the first ten years of RLUIPA enforcement, as well as policy guidance on the institutionalized persons section and on the religious land use section.

Brief Filed Supporting Lower Court in Prison RLUIPA Case

On December 27, 2010, the Civil Rights Division filed a brief arguing that under RLUIPA, a Muslim prisoner whose beliefs require him to wear a beard must be permitted to maintain the same 1/4-inch beard that several thousand other prisoners with a skin condition making shaving difficult are permitted to wear. The brief, filed in the United States Court of the Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Garner v. Kennedy, argues that a Texas federal court correctly ruled that RLUIPA required that religious reasons for wearing a beard be treated equally with medical reasons.

RLUIPA provides that prison regulations that impose a "substantial burden" on an inmate's religious exercise may only be enforced if they serve a compelling governmental justification and do so through the means that are the least restrictive of religious exercise. Willie Lee Garner is a Muslim inmate whose beliefs require him to wear a beard. Of the 155,000 inmates in the Texas correctional system, approximately 7,000 are permitted to wear short, 1/4 inch beards due to a skin condition making shaving difficult. Garner, however, was denied a request to wear a 1/4 inch beard for religious reasons and was disciplined for failing to shave.

Garner filed suit under RLUIPA in federal court in Texas. The trial court found that it was undisputed that the no-beard policy imposed a substantial burden on his religious practice, thus satisfying the first step of RLUIPA. Turning to the government interest supporting its policy, the trial court agreed that Texas has a compelling interest in safety, and in running the prisons in an economical manner. However, the trial court ruled that denying Garner the same treatment as inmates with the skin condition was not the least restrictive means to achieve these interests.

The United States' brief argues that the district court was correct in ruling in Garner's favor. The brief notes that under RLUIPA, once a prisoner proves that a policy imposes a substantial burden on his religious exercise, the burden shifts to the prison to prove that the policy furthers a compelling interest through the least restrictive means. The brief argues that the legislative history of RLUIPA makes clear that "in order to be the least restrictive means of advancing compelling governmental interests, a prison policy that substantially burdens religious exercise must be well founded in protecting prison security, inmate health, or a similarly compelling penological interest."

The brief contends that the reasons offered for its barring Garner from wearing a 1/4 inch beard do not hold up to scrutiny. They have failed to offer any reason why allowing the 1/4 inch beard for medical purposes is consistent with its security interests, but allowing it for religious purposes would not be. The brief notes that many other prisons, including the entire Federal Bureau of Prisons system, allow short beards for religious reasons without creating security problems. Texas's economic reasons also do not hold up to scrutiny. While the exemption sought by Garner may require an additional i.d. photo and more frequent trips to the barber, this is also true for the thousands of inmates who are currently allowed to wear 1/4-inch beards for medical reasons.

Further information on the Civil Rights Division's enforcement of the institutionalized persons section of RLUIPA may be found at the Special Litigation Section's RLUIPA page.

Twelve Indicted in Attacks on Amish

On December 20, 2011, a grand jury in Cleveland, Ohio indicted 10 men and two women on federal hate crime charges for five separate attacks on Amish men and women from September through November 2011. The attacks, according to the indictment, were perpetrated by one group of Amish against other Amish people with whom they had religious disagreements. The alleged assaults involved restraining the victims and cutting their beards, in the case of male victims, and cutting their hair, in the case of female victims.

Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, remarked on the day of the indictments: "Every American has the right to worship in the manner of his or her choosing without fear of violent interference." Similarly, U.S. Attorney Steven M. Dettelbach stated: "For nearly 500 years, people have come to this land so that they could pray however and to whomever they wished. Violent attempts to attack this most basic freedom have no place in our country."

The twelve defendants were charged with violating the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, 18 USC § 249 and other federal offenses including obstruction of justice.

Update: Third Main Sentenced in Massachusetts Church Arson

On January 18, 2012, the third defendant in the arson of a Springfield, Massachusetts church in 2008 was sentenced to more than 54 months in prison by a federal court in Boston. Thomas Gleason, 24, had previously pleaded guilty to federal civil rights offenses for his role in the arson of the predominately African-American Macedonia Church of God in Christ just hours after the election of President Barack Obama. Gleason was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Michael A. Ponsor to 54 months in prison. Gleason was also ordered to pay more than $1.7 million in restitution, including $123,570 to the church.

As previously reported in Religious Freedom in Focus, Gleason and two others pleaded guilty to conspiracy against civil rights, damage or destruction of religious property in violation of the Church Arson Prevention Act, and use of fire to commit a felony. Gleason's co-conspirators, Benjamin Haskell and Michael Jacques, were previously sentenced to 9 years and 14 years in prison, respectively.

According to evidence presented in court, in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2008, Gleason and his co-conspirators burned down the Macedonia Church of God in Christ's newly-constructed church. The building was approximately 75 percent completed at the time of the fire, which destroyed nearly the entire structure, leaving only the metal superstructure and a small portion of the front corner intact.

"Attempting to destroy a place of worship not only hurts those who congregate there, but affects the entire community," said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, on the day of the sentencing. "The Justice Department will vigorously prosecute acts such as this one that interfere with a person's right to worship."

The case was prosecuted by attorneys from the Springfield Office of the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office and the Civil Rights Division's Criminal Section.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015