Analysis of Judge Gorsuch’s Religious Liberty Cases Involving Inmates (RLUIPA)

By Don Byrd

Written by Don Byrd

On Monday, the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate will begin confirmation hearings for Judge Neal Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court. The Baptist Joint Committee has been reviewing Judge Gorsuch’s church-state record for insight into his views on religious liberty issues. One aspect of his work that may shed some light is his approach to prisoners’ lawsuits.

Like most other federal appeals court judges, Judge Gorsuch has considered a number of cases brought by prison inmates who claim that their rights, including religious liberty rights, have been violated. While these suits rarely result in substantive appeals court opinions, those that do can provide insight into a judge’s approach to religious liberty guaranties in the law.

Since 2000, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) has protected the religious exercise rights of inmates pursuant to a strict legal standard. Modeled on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), RLUIPA permits the state to substantially burden an inmate’s religious exercise only if it is necessary to further a “compelling governmental interest.”

In his written opinions applying RLUIPA (discussed below), Judge Gorsuch demonstrates a thoughtful understanding of the law’s intention. He …read more

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