Cutter v. Wilkinson (2005)

The Supreme Court considered whether the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. RLUIPA prohibits government from burdening prisoners’ religious exercise unless the burden furthers a “compelling government interest.”

The Court noted examples of burdens upon the free exercise rights of prisoners including requiring Muslims or Orthodox Jews to eat pork, precluding them from wearing a head cap or yarmulke, censoring their access to religious literature or communications from religious leaders, prohibiting Sikhs from wearing a beard, etc. It would be up to a court to determine whether any such restrictions further a compelling government interest and whether such restrictions are the least restrictive means to further that government interest.

In a unanimous decision, the Court held that RLUIPA did not violate the Establishment Clause. In the Court’s opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that Section 3 of RLUIPA (which covers state-run institutions) is “a permissible accommodation” under the Establishment Clause, because it alleviates exceptional burdens on private religious exercise created by the degree of control exerted by government in a prison. The Court noted that the government exerts a degree of control unparalleled in civilian society and severely disabling to private religious exercise. In addition, RLUIPA does not differentiate among bona fide faiths, and gives no privileged status to any particular religious sect.