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Monday, October 7, 2019

Department of Justice Reaches Agreement Resolving Investigation of Virginia Department of Corrections Over Religious Practice Policies

The Department of Justice today announced that it reached an agreement with the Commonwealth of Virginia to resolve its investigation of the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC), pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. §2000cc.  The investigation and agreement addressed VDOC’s five-person minimum for group worship and religious activities, its policy of preventing prisoners from attending religious services if they missed services in the past, and its restrictions on access to the religious diet. 

“This settlement will ensure that men and women in VDOC’s custody can practice their religions consistent with their sincerely held beliefs, including through group worship and an appropriate religious diet,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division.  “We commend the Commonwealth for its willingness to make changes to further its commitment to rehabilitating prisoners and preparing them for reentry into their communities.”

“The right to worship and engage in religious activities within correctional facilities is protected by the Constitution and federal law,” said U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen for the Western District of Virginia.  “We are pleased that the VDOC recognizes this and is taking appropriate steps to ensure that individuals under its supervision are better able to exercise this fundamental right.” 

“We are pleased that the Commonwealth of Virginia has reached this agreement with the Department involving the VDOC,” said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “This settlement makes certain that those in VDOC installations will be able to exercise their religious beliefs, whatever they may be, as guaranteed by the United States Constitution.”

Before signing the agreement, VDOC made policy changes addressing all three issues.  The new policy (1) removes the five-person minimum requirement for religious services and activities; (2) prohibits removal from the religious diet for failing to pick up a minimum number of common fare meal trays per month; and (3) removes the requirement that prisoners regularly attend services in order to remain eligible to attend religious services and activities.

Under the agreement, VDOC affirmed the importance of protecting the rights of men and women in its custody to engage in religious practice and acknowledged that the policy revisions are consistent with its goals.  As part of its implementation efforts, VDOC will provide training to staff and chaplains involved in implementing the revised policy.

Additional information about the Civil Rights Division and the Special Litigation Section, please visit www.justice.gov/crt/special-litigation-section. Those interested in finding out more about RLUIPA may visit https://www.justice.gov/crt/religious-land-use-and-institutionalized-persons-act-0.  The Department of Justice issued a Report on the Tenth Anniversary of RLUIPA in 2010, and an Update on RLUIPA Enforcement in 2016.

Updated October 7, 2019