The 9-0 decision by the Supreme Court on Tuesday to uphold a federal law requiring prison officials to accommodate the right of prisoners to meet in worship is a clear victory for religious freedom.
The court determined that providing for the special needs for religious practice by prisoners of a non- mainstream religion does not violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Its ruling guarantees inmates of any self-proclaimed religious group, so long as the security and safety of the prison are not compromised, the right to practice their faith together.
The court was clear not to trump correction officials' duties to maintain order and safety. So it left in place the legal bar for inmates to prove that administrative decisions affecting their right to worship are unreasonable and overly restrictive. But the ruling also gives inmates a broad array of legal claims that can challenge a prison's ability to restrict their right to worship.
Justice Ruth Ginsburg, writing for the court, indicated the Constitution permits some latitude for Congress to pass reasonable laws to accommodate religious practice and that it had done so with passage of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the law under review.
The ruling succeeds in further defining instances in which Congress can safeguard religious liberty without giving preferential treatment to any one religion.