The Section enforces the "institutionalized persons" provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc. These provisions recognize the crucial role religion plays in the rehabilitation of prisoners and in the lives of those who are institutionalized, and they require that state and local institutions not place arbitrary or unnecessary restrictions on religious practice. "Institutions" include prisons, jails, pretrial detention facilities, juvenile facilities, and institutions housing persons with disabilities when these facilities controlled by or provide services on behalf of State or local governments.
Since Congress passed RLUIPA in 2000, the Section has opened more than a dozen investigations and made numerous informal inquiries to State and local governments. The Section is often able to change restrictions on religious exercise before formally investigating or filing in court under RLUIPA's "safe harbor" provision. The safe harbor provision lets governments avoid court action by changing their policy or practice or otherwise lifting the burden on religious exercise. This is efficient and effective. It can help protect institutionalized persons from negative health effects or discipline that may follow their efforts to honor their religious tradition.
When necessary, the Section will sue to protect the religious rights of individuals in institutions. Over the past few years, the Section has sued in three cases and has filed a Statements of Interest explaining the law in five cases filed by other parties. The Section also works closely with the Appellate Section to file amicus curiae briefs that explain how RLUIPA should apply in cases before the federal appellate courts. The links below include several of our briefs, and guidance we issued on the Tenth Anniversary of RLUIPA: "Statement of the Department of Justice on the Institutionalized Persons Provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act."
Examples of our Work with People Seeking the Freedom to Worship in Institutions
Diet: In some cases, our enforcement is critical to protecting the health and safety of institutionalized persons, in addition to promoting their rehabilitation and connection to the community. For example, in several cases individuals have been denied a diet that is consistent with their religious practices. There can be serious health consequences when a person refuses to eat because the food available violates the person's religious beliefs. We often can address restrictions on religious exercise informally by working with State or local officials to ensure that the individual's health is monitored and that an appropriate diet is provided. In other cases, we must investigate or sue before inmates are allowed to exercise their religious beliefs. For example, after we opened an investigation of a Utah prison, the prison gave vegan meals to an inmate to accommodate his Hindu faith. Similarly, a nursing home in New York agreed to train its staff members so that Sikh residents' religious practices, including an appropriate diet, are honored. Even after an investigation, some jurisdictions refuse to provide an appropriate diet. We are currently suing a state that refuses to give most of its Jewish prisoners a kosher diet.
Hair Length: Sukhjinder Basra is a lifelong practitioner of the Sikh faith. As an observant Sikh, he must keep is hair unshorn, including facial hair. Sikhs believe that cutting one's hair is a grievous sin. Mr. Basra has always maintained uncut hair. While Mr. Basra was in medium-security prison, he was allowed to keep his beard without any restriction on its length. After he was transferred to a minimum-security prison, however, he was repeatedly disciplined because of his religiously-based refusal to trim his beard. We joined Mr. Basra's lawsuit, and the State ultimately repealed its regulation requiring Mr. Basra to trim his beard.
Religious Texts: The Berkeley County Detention Center banned a wide array of books, publications, and religious and educational materials, including the Washington Post, USA Today, the Koran, and Our Daily Bread, a widely-used Christian devotional. The Division joined an existing lawsuit against the sheriff's office, arguing that this ban violated the First Amendment and RLUIPA. The case eventually settled, and we obtained a consent injunction. Now, prisoners in the detention center can receive a variety of publications and religious materials.
For further information, follow the links below:
- Cases and Matters
- Statement on the Institutionalized Persons Provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (2017)
- Appellate Briefs Filed by the Department of Justice
- United States v. Florida Department of Corrections (11th Cir.) - Brief as Appellee
- Native American Council of Tribes, et al. v. Weber, et al. (8th Cir.) - Brief as Amicus
- Knight v. Thompson (11th Cir.) - Brief as Amicus
- Garner v. Kennedy (5th Cir.) - Brief as Amicus
- Thunderhorse v. Pierce (S. Ct.) - Brief as Amicus
- Khatib v. County of Orange (9th Cir.) - Brief as Amicus
- Nelson v. Miller (7th Cir.) - Brief as Amicus