In the summer of 2001, as a graduate student in law and theology, I began work on a master’s thesis that examined the predicament of men of faith on San Quentin’s Condemned Row. I was working in the California Appellate Project—mostly assisting with direct appeals and state habeas petitions on behalf of men under a death sentence—when a colleague guided me into theological conversations with some of our clients. On Condemned Row, they waited—up to five years to be assigned a court-appointed appellate attorney, on judges’ rulings, and to find whether the legal system would ultimately exact the penalty it had prescribed. Some struggled with guilt or loss, and all endured the boredom of days spent in solitary cells.
If anyone needed the solace of faith, it was these men. I began the project, frankly, with a fair amount of skepticism that the men had become faithful opportunistically. (I recalled once having read about a prisoner who filed a lawsuit for not being offered a so-called religiously-mandated diet of lobster and champagne, which pretty well summed up my thoughts on prisoner religious practice.) I was also personally dissatisfied by supernatural answers to life’s questions and approached the prisoners’ religious beliefs with a mixture of agnostic temerity and hyper-educated condescension. But after the year spent corresponding and meeting with these men and their attorneys or spiritual advisors, I was impressed by the modesty of their requests and the persistence of the prison’s denials of their religious requests.
In 2001, nearly every aspect of each man’s religious practice was subject to (and limited by) the policies of the wardens of San Quentin. Prisoners were entirely at the mercy of the prison with regard to the diet prepared, the religious services offered, and the counseling or spiritual advice available. And frequently, what was offered or forbidden forced a prisoner to break a requirement of his faith.
Until the passage of the short-lived Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993, prisoners’ legal claims related to their free exercise of religion were evaluated under a test that required them both to justify the importance of a particular practice and to prove that a prison’s concerns about safety and budgeting (or any other concerns a Warden might offer) were not justified under the circumstances. Such litigation also put prisoners in the position of defending the sincerity of their faith and the action which that faith required.
But the 1990s had been an active decade for proponents of free exercise and offered promise of new legal standards and, perhaps, new prison policies. The RFRA required the government to provide evidence of a “compelling interest” in cases of freedom of religion. It, however, was struck down as applied to state law by the United States Supreme Court in 1997 as overreaching Congressional authority. Only a year before I began my work in California, a defiant U.S. Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). That Act was far more generous than the Turner test, but it was too soon to tell whether the men would ever enjoy RLUIPA’s promised benefits.
First, RLUIPA, like RFRA, seemed vulnerable to an Establishment Clause challenge and was clearly destined to be the subject of litigation about its constitutionality. Second, men who had litigated under Turner had become almost accustomed to denials of religious claims and felt powerless to prompt change. But unexpected challenges lay within a piece of legislation passed after RFRA and before RLUIPA: the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The PLRA was intended to weed out prisoners’ meritless, successive, or inartfully-crafted civil legal claims, but because it was passed after RFRA, it had not been an impediment to litigation under that statute.
The project changed me and how I thought of prison lawsuits related to religious practice. I came to understand these lawsuits as overwhelmingly reasonable, modest, and related to the core of lives of faith. And so I became particularly interested in whether our courts offered a means by which to vindicate otherwise-frustrated needs to act in belief as a follower sees fit.
I fully appreciate that some—perhaps even many—prisoner religious claims are self-serving, meritless, or abusive. Some suits are merely the outgrowth of boredom, frustration with prison authority, or are cynical expressions of a prisoner with far more interest in filing serial lawsuits than to practice a religion of any stripe. However, I believe the law of free exercise (particularly free exercise in prison) employs legal tests that are sufficient to ferret out the “nonbeliever” or the abusive litigant. Years later, this article follows on, examining how RLUIPA has borne up under constitutional scrutiny, and whether it has had its intended impact upon the men of faith who live in American prisons. If, for example, the purpose of RLUIPA was to remove encumbrances upon religious practice in prison, has it succeeded? Or has RLUIPA been another disappointment, given the deference traditionally given to prison officials?
The intersection of these two laws is sufficiently beneath most scholars’ attention that those writing on RLUIPA have had little—if anything—to say on the matter; this Article is the first to fully examine the impact of the PLRA upon prisoners’ RLUIPA claims. What I found after a national survey of lower court cases and reported appellate opinions, however, was deeply disappointing, if not surprising. For all the heavy rhetoric and bipartisan support behind RLUIPA’s passage, the ultimate outcomes of prisoners’ lawsuits related to their free exercise reveals that it has had only a modest impact. There may or may not exist the political will to modify either law such that prisoners’ claims have more likelihood of success, but given the practical and legal restrictions upon litigation of this sort, the radical change promised in RFRA and RLUIPA still eludes most prisoners litigating free exercise claims.
Sarah Gerwig-Moore, Saving Their Own Souls: How RLUIPA Failed to Deliver on its Promises, 4 Legis. Pol'y Brief 119 (2011).