Washington, DC, August 12, 2010– Today Gene Schaerr, firm-wide chair of Winston & Strawn, LLP’s Appellate and Critical Motions practice announced that he filed a U.S. Supreme Court Brief on behalf of multiple groups* in the case of Sossamon v. Texas (No. 08-1438).
The U.S. Congress in 2000 passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) based on findings that many prisoners, and others involuntarily committed in institutions, were being denied reasonable opportunities to practice their religion—and many were incurring retribution from prison officials for doing so.
RLUIPA was enacted to protect those who were restricted from practicing their religion, and the law clearly states that federal monies are not to be used to burden religious practices. To enforce the law, Congress allowed prisoners to seek injunctions to prevent prisons from engaging in future unlawful behavior, as well as monetary damages to compensate for past behavior.
Texas, however, claims to not have understood that if it received federal funds it was subject to lawsuits for monetary damages under RLUIPA. As a result, Texas claims that it can only be sued for injunctions. But the Winston amicus brief gives numerous examples of instances where prison officials have used legal gamesmanship to make claims for injunctions go away. Without the ability to sue for damages, the brief explains, many prisoners would have no effective remedy when prison officials violate their rights.
“Texas’ solution typically has been to simply move prisoners filing religious freedom lawsuits from prison to prison, thus making prisoners’ pending cases moot. Poof! Problem solved,” said Schaerr.
“Only a claim for damages, therefore, can prevent a cause from becoming moot, i.e. being settled or resolved. Including a monetary component in RLUIPA for disallowing religious practices was and remains at the core — and is the guts of the Act. The past twenty years have clearly demonstrated that the only meaningful remedy against unnecessary and often cruel obstructions to prisoners’ religious practice is the realized threat of compensatory damages,” Schaerr continued.
The U.S. Congress between 1998 and 1999 conducted nine hearings over three years and documented “frivolous and arbitrary” restrictions on religious practices that were “frequently occurring” in prisons around the country – instances of bigotry, indifference, or ignorance toward prisoners’ religious practices.
“Just one example of abuse involved a Jewish prisoner in Texas who would not withdraw his religious freedom lawsuit and was transferred from a minimum to a maximum-security prison. Neo-Nazi skinheads heard the news and within 15 minutes of the transferred prisoner’s arrival, the gang members killed him,” continued Schaerr.
More examples can be found in the Winston brief, which recounts the hardships faced by Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Native American prisoners who were denied or punished for practicing their religious faiths. Some prisoners filed lawsuits. Some did not, yet still experienced retribution from government-paid prison employees.
Many may argue that those who committed crimes and are now serving time gave up any and all rights the day they walked through those prison doors. Some people may believe that’s the price a prisoner must pay for his or her crime. A prisoner has to depend, however, on the government’s prison employees for his or her most basic needs. For example, prisoners must seek permission to do almost anything – even to go to the prison chapel to pray, practice high holidays, or confess their sins to a priest. Under these circumstances, if prison officials do not make accommodations for religious prisoners, their ability to practice their religions would simply be extinguished. Even in prisons, that is not the American way.
“The First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution is inarguably the most valuable part of our Constitution. In fact ‘freedom of religions’ is the very first freedom listed and guaranteed. Compensatory damages, therefore, are the core component of RLUIPA and absolutely vital to its purpose of deterring pervasive and unjustified harsh acts by prison officials against prisoners seeking to exercise their religious beliefs — as guaranteed in the First Amendment and Bill of Rights,” concluded Schaerr.
CONTACT: PAMELA WHITNEY, 202.747.4440 — firstname.lastname@example.org
*American Civil Liberties Union, Uptown People’s Law Center, Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, American Jewish Committee, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, The Interfaith Alliance.