April 21, 2011
Supreme Court Limits Prisoners' Right to Sue
Prison inmates who are deprived of their religious rights cannot sue states for monetary damages, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.
Inmate Harvey Leroy Sossamon III said a Texas state prison illegally prevented him from attending religious services. Sossamon had been on cell restriction for disciplinary reasons at the time.
Sossamon alleged that the prison's actions violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which protects inmates' right to practice their faith.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, ruled that under RLUIPA prisoners can sue to change prison policies but not seek financial redress. Texas does not forgo its "sovereign immunity" when it accepts federal money to run its prisons, Thomas said.
After Sossamon filed suit, the prison changed its policies, Thomas noted.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was joined by Justice Stephen Breyer in dissenting from the majority decision, argued that RLIUPA allows prisoners to seek "appropriate relief" for violations of the law.
Without the possibility of monetary damages, Sotomayor said, prisoners will be forced to defend their religious rights "with one hand tied behind their backs."
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty agreed, saying the high court's ruling leaves prisoners with "an incomplete remedy for vindicating their religious rights."
"We are disappointed in the majority's pinched view of what was a clear congressional intent to provide prisoners broad protection for religious liberty and a robust remedy for its violation, including monetary damages," said BJC Executive Director J. Brent Walker.