Cutter v. Wilkinson

544 U.S. 709

Case Year: 2005

Case Ruling: 9-0, Reversed and Remanded

Opinion Justice: Ginsburg

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Breyer, Kennedy, O'Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia, Souter, Stevens, Thomas


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Thomas


1st Dissenting Opinion



2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


This case involves one stage in a long-standing congressional attempt to accord religious exercise--heightened protection from government--imposed burdens. After the Supreme Court struck down the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act in City of Boerne v. Flores (1997), Congress responded by passing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). Section 3, the portion of the law challenged in this case, dictates that "No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution" unless the burden furthers a "compelling government interest" and does so by the "least restrictive means."

Jon Cutter and other current or former inmates of the Ohio corrections system instituted legal action under RLUIPA against Reginald Wilkinson, director of the Ohio corrections system, arguing that the state placed unlawful burdens on the practice of their religions. The petitioners claimed adherence to certain nonmainstream faiths such as the Satanist, Wicca, and Asatru religions, and the Church of Jesus Christ-Christian.

The state argued that, by requiring religious accommodation, RLUIPA offends the Establishment Clause. Because the law applied to institutions that accept federal moneys the petitioners, supported by the United States, defended the RLUIPA in part as a constitutional use of the federal spending power. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held the challenged portions of RLUIPA to be in violation of the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court granted review.



The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment provide: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The first of the two Clauses, commonly called the Establishment Clause, commands a separation of church and state. The second, the Free Exercise Clause, requires government respect for, and noninterference with, the religious beliefs and practices of our Nation's people. While the two Clauses express complementary values, they often exert conflicting pressures.

Our decisions recognize that "there is room for play in the joints" between the Clauses, [ Walz v. Tax Comm'n of City of New York (1970)], some space for legislative action neither compelled by the Free Exercise Clause nor prohibited by the Establishment Clause. In accord with the majority of Courts of Appeals that have ruled on the question, we hold that §3 of RLUIPA fits within the corridor between the Religion Clauses: On its face, the Act qualifies as a permissible legislative accommodation of religion that is not barred by the Establishment Clause.

Foremost, we find RLUIPA's institutionalized-persons provision compatible with the Establishment Clause because it alleviates exceptional government-created burdens on private religious exercise. Furthermore, the Act on its face does not founder on shoals our prior decisions have identified: Properly applying RLUIPA, courts must take adequate account of the burdens a requested accommodation may impose on nonbeneficiaries; and they must be satisfied that the Act's prescriptions are and will be administered neutrally among different faiths "[T]he 'exercise of religion' often involves not only belief and profession but the performance of... physical acts [such as] assembling with others for a worship service [or] participating in sacramental use of bread and wine...." Section 3 covers state-run institutions--mental hospitals, prisons, and the like--in which the government exerts a degree of control unparalleled in civilian society and severely disabling to private religious exercise. RLUIPA thus protects institutionalized persons who are unable freely to attend to their religious needs and are therefore dependent on the government's permission and accommodation for exercise of their religion.

We note in this regard the Federal Government's accommodation of religious practice by members of the military. InGoldman v. Weinberger (1986), we held that the Free Exercise Clause did not require the Air Force to exempt an Orthodox Jewish officer from uniform dress regulations so that he could wear a yarmulke indoors. In a military community, the Court observed, "there is simply not the same [individual] autonomy as there is in the larger civilian community." Congress responded to Goldman by prescribing that "a member of the armed forces may wear an item of religious apparel while wearing the uniform," unless "the wearing of the item would interfere with the performance [of] military duties [or] the item of apparel is not neat and conservative."

We do not read RLUIPA to elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution's need to maintain order and safety. Our decisions indicate that an accommodation must be measured so that it does not override other significant interests. In [ Estate of Thornton v. ] Caldor, Inc. [1985], the Court struck down a Connecticut law that "arm[ed] Sabbath observers with an absolute and unqualified right not to work on whatever day they designate[d] as their Sabbath." We held the law invalid under the Establishment Clause because it "unyielding[ly] weigh[ted]" the interests of Sabbatarians "over all other interests."

We have no cause to believe that RLUIPA would not be applied in an appropriately balanced way, with particular sensitivity to security concerns. While the Act adopts a "compelling governmental interest" standard, "[c]ontext matters" in the application of that standard. Lawmakers supporting RLUIPA were mindful of the urgency of discipline, order, safety, and security in penal institutions. They anticipated that courts would apply the Act's standard with "due deference to the experience and expertise of prison and jail administrators in establishing necessary regulations and procedures to maintain good order, security and discipline, consistent with consideration of costs and limited resources."

Finally, RLUIPA does not differentiate among bona fide faiths. In Board of Ed. of Kiryas Joel Village School Dist. v. Grumet(1994), we invalidated a state law that carved out a separate school district to serve exclusively a community of highly religious Jews, the Satmar Hasidim. We held that the law violated the Establishment Clause in part because it "single[d] out a particular religious sect for special treatment," RLUIPA presents no such defect. It confers no privileged status on any particular religious sect, and singles out no bona fide faith for disadvantageous treatment.

The Sixth Circuit misread our precedents to require invalidation of RLUIPA as "impermissibly advancing religion by giving greater protection to religious rights than to other constitutionally protected rights." Our decision in [ Corporation of Presiding Bishop of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Amos (1987)] counsels otherwise. There, we upheld against an Establishment Clause challenge a provision exempting "religious organizations from Title VII's prohibition against discrimination in employment on the basis of religion."... Were the Court of Appeals' view the correct reading of our decisions, all manner of religious accommodations would fall. Congressional permission for members of the military to wear religious apparel while in uniform would fail, as would accommodations Ohio itself makes. Ohio could not, as it now does, accommodate "traditionally recognized" religions: The State provides inmates with chaplains "but not with publicists or political consultants," and allows "prisoners to assemble for worship, but not for political rallies."... "For more than a decade, the federal Bureau of Prisons has managed the largest correctional system in the Nation under the same heightened scrutiny standard as RLUIPA without compromising prison security, public safety, or the constitutional rights of other prisoners." The Congress that enacted RLUIPA was aware of the Bureau's experience. We see no reason to anticipate that abusive prisoner litigation will overburden the operations of state and local institutions. The procedures mandated by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, we note, are designed to inhibit frivolous filings.

Should inmate requests for religious accommodations become excessive, impose unjustified burdens on other institutionalized persons, or jeopardize the effective functioning of an institution, the facility would be free to resist the imposition. In that event, adjudication in as-applied challenges would be in order.

For the reasons stated, the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


I join the opinion of the Court. I agree with the Court that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) is constitutional under our modern Establishment Clause case law....

The Establishment Clause provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."... Ohio asserts that the Clause protects the States from federal interference with otherwise constitutionally permissible choices regarding religious policy. In Ohio's view, RLUIPA intrudes on such state policy choices and hence violates the Clause.

Ohio's vision of the range of protected state authority overreads the Clause.... The Clause prohibits Congress from enacting legislation "respecting an establishment of religion" (emphasis added); it does not prohibit Congress from enacting legislation "respecting religion" or "taking cognizance of religion."... It also bears noting that Congress, pursuant to its Spending Clause authority, conditioned the States' receipt of federal funds on their compliance with RLUIPA.... RLUIPA may well exceed the spending power. Nonetheless, while Congress' condition stands, the States subject themselves to that condition by voluntarily accepting federal funds. The States' voluntary acceptance of Congress' condition undercuts Ohio's argument that Congress is encroaching on its turf.