Cincinnati Court Rules: Law Protecting Prisoners' Religious Rights is Unconstitutional

November 8, 2003

Source: The New York Times

On November 8, 2003 The New York Times reported that "a federal law meant to protect prisoners' religious rights is unconstitutional, a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled yesterday. The judges ruled that the law amounted to an endorsement of religion by the government, violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment... The case decided yesterday by the panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit was brought by four men who said that Ohio prison officials had interfered with their access to religious literature and chaplains, with their ability to conduct religious services and with their freedom to dress as required by their faiths. The plaintiffs are John W. Gerhardt, who said he was a minister in the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, which believes that the races should be separated and is affiliated with the Aryan Nation; John Miller, who said he was a follower of Asatru, a polytheistic faith that includes Thor in its pantheon of gods; J. Lee Hampton, who said he was a witch in the Wiccan faith; and Jon B. Cutter, who said he was a Satanist... Yesterday's decision was not based on states' rights but on the First Amendment's prohibition on the establishment of religion by the government. In the 1997 Supreme Court decision striking down the earlier law on federalism grounds, only Justice John Paul Stevens suggested that it was vulnerable to attack on establishment-clause grounds. The judges in yesterday's decision agreed, ruling unanimously that the law 'has the effect of encouraging prisoners to become more religious in order to enjoy greater rights.'"