Supreme Court Opinion in Texas Prisoner Religious Freedom (RLUIPA) Case

20 April 2011 – Washington, D.C.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that states, in accepting federal funding, do not consent to waive their sovereign immunity to private suits for money damages under federal law. In a majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas in the case Sossamon v. Texas et al., the Court ruled that the principle of sovereign immunity protects a state from a damages lawsuit by a prisoner who contends that worship restrictions violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects religious freedom in prisons and in land use. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen G. Breyer dissented, and Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case.

This ruling will make it “easier for prisons to trample on inmates’ religious liberty rights,” asserted Sandhya Bathija, writing for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. For the Court, however, the paramount concern is the issue of state sovereign immunitiy, and the RLUIPA language “is not the unequivocal expression of state consent that our precedents require” for a waiver of this immunity.

RLUIPA provides that a person may assert a violation of the statute in a judicial proceeding “and obtain appropriate relief against a government.” The plaintiff inmate, Harvey Leroy Sossamon, had asserted that the phrase “appropriate relief” is sufficient to alert the state that in accepting federal funds the state waived its immunity from suits for money damages under the act. Justice Sotomayor agreed. “By depriving prisoners of a damages remedy for violations of their statutory rights,” Sotomayor wrote, “the majority ensures that plaintiffs suing state defendants under RLUIPA will be forced to seek enforcement of those rights with one hand tied behind their backs.” 

Some religious institutions had feared that a ruling against the prisoner in this case would make it harder for them address other challenges, such as local zoning regulations, under RLUIPA. “The ruling could do great harm to the protections for religious organizations, which were a huge part of the reason it [RLUIPA] was passed in the first place,” said Kelly Shackleford, chief counsel for the Liberty Institute, which prepared the pro-Sossamon amicus brief for the National Association of Evangelicals. “The law’s not very useful,” said Shackleford, “if you can’t get damages.” (See Mary Alice Robbins‘ Case Preview in Texas Lawyer.)

26 April 2011.  RLUIPA ruling could generate ‘legal nightmare.’