Tuesday, April 19, 2005
The U.S. Justice Department believes that Satanism, Wicca and polytheism are religious beliefs.
The federal government argued in the Supreme Court Monday that states must enable prison inmates to practice and observe such "religious" beliefs – no matter how unconventional they may be.
But many states think the federal view will cause mayhem in prison systems throughout the nation.
Ohio state officials argued that a law requiring them to give such special attention and benefits to these, and other, prison practitioners of religion is an unconstitutional endangerment of prison security. And at least one federal court has agreed so far.The New York Times Tuesday noted the unusual alliance between the conservative Bush administration and those who want to practice Satanism.
Yesterday, lawyers for the state of Ohio claimed to the High Court that a five-year-old federal law mandating such religious accommodations for prisoners violates the Constitution's First Amendment.
Specifically, Ohio Solicitor Douglas R. Cole says the law requires states to provide additional support to prison inmates seeking to practice their religion – support that is unavailable to non-religious practitioners.
Cole, in arguments before the high court, said the requirement violates the Constitution's prohibition of government "establishment" of religion, a view agreed upon by the U.S. Sixth Court of Appeals.
"Can Congress really say to prisoners, 'We'd like you to be religious and we'll give you a better show for getting out from the rules that apply to everyone else?'" Cole argued.
Specifically, the paper said, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 "provides 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 can be justified as being the 'least restrictive means' of furthering a 'compelling governmental interest.'"
The case began originally as three separate lawsuits filed by five Ohio prison inmates, who said the state violated their rights by not allowing them to worship as a group, possess religious literature and other ways.
The inmates are followers of Satanism, Wicca and a pair of religious organizations associated with White Supremacy, the Church of Jesus Christ Christian and Asatru, the Times reported.
Ohio lawyers think Congress went too far, especially since complying with the law could endanger prison security, as well as the lives of other prisoners. Cole said the law, for one, "forces prison officials to change the balance they would otherwise strike" between safety and religion.
"He also said the law provided an 'impermissible incentive' to inmates to adopt a religion as a way of obtaining favored treatment," the Times reported. "He said the law invited 'constant pressure, day after day, if you want this set of benefits, get religion.'"
The federal government disagrees, however, and is siding with prisoners in defending the propriety of the legislation.