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Old 12-30-2002, 06:19 PM
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Default Court Backs Muslim Inmates in California

Court Backs Muslim Inmates
Appellate panel says they can't be disciplined for attending prayer service and that beards grown for religious reasons can't be banned.

12/28/2002 - 06:16 AM PST (14:16 GMT)

By Henry Weinstein
Times Staff Writer


California prison officials cannot discipline Muslim inmates for attending a Friday afternoon prayer service, a federal appeals court ruled Friday in a decision that also touches on the power of cities to restrict the location of places of worship.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals also let stand a lower court decision that allows inmates to grow beards for religious reasons.

The 3-0 ruling was the first by a federal appeals court on the constitutionality of a 2-year-old federal law that gives religious groups greater flexibility in dealing with zoning ordinances and also requires prison officials to make reasonable accommodations to inmates' religious practices.

Friday's ruling benefits a group of Muslim inmates at the California State Prison, Solano, in Vacaville who filed a class-action lawsuit six years ago, contending that prison officials were illegally burdening their religious practices.

The inmates challenged regulations that imposed discipline on them for leaving prison jobs for the Friday noontime Jumu'ah religious service and that took away good-work credits for the entire day if an inmate attended the hourlong service.

Constitutional law professor Erwin Chemerinsky of the USC Law School said the ruling upholding the constitutionality of the law was significant, with ramifications outside of prisons.

For instance, he said, religious groups would now have a stronger argument if they were trying to erect a church or synagogue in an area zoned for homes only, because a court might rule that the zoning law represented an unwarranted "substantial burden" on the free exercise of religion.

In the ruling, Judge Dorothy W. Nelson wrote: "Protecting religious worship in institutions from substantial and illegitimate burdens does promote the general welfare.

"The 1st Amendment, by prohibiting laws that proscribe the free exercise of religion, demonstrates the great value placed on protecting religious worship from impermissible government intrusion. By ensuring that governments do not act to burden the exercise of religion in institutions," the federal law "is clearly in line with this positive constitutional value."

The 9th Circuit rebuffed arguments by the California attorney general's office that the federal law passed in 2000, called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, violated the constitutional prohibition against establishment of religion and other clauses of the Constitution.

The judges cited a 1987 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that Congress could withhold 5% of a state's federal highway funds unless the state had a minimum drinking age of 21.

Constitutional law professor Jesse Choper of UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall said the ruling is "in accord with existing Supreme Court doctrine" on Congress' power to condition the distribution of federal funds to states on compliance with certain federal mandates.

In the opinion joined by Judges Mary M. Schroeder and Johnnie B. Rawlinson, Nelson wrote that "Congress has a strong interest in making certain that federal funds do not subsidize conduct that infringes individual liberties, such as the free practice of one's religion. The federal government also has a strong interest in monitoring the treatment of federal inmates housed in state prisons and in contributing to their rehabilitation."

The ruling upheld a series of injunctions issued on behalf of the inmates by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton in Sacramento.

"This decision will make it easier for inmates to practice their religion," said Sacramento attorney Susan D. Christian. "I think the ruling is very important, because the prison now has to demonstrate that its regulation addresses a compelling state interest, and they have to show that the regulation is being implemented with the least restrictive means.

"Previously," she said, "all the prison officials had to do was say the regulation was needed for 'security' reasons, and courts said it was OK."

Margot Bach, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections, said it was too soon to say whether the agency would appeal.

She said the department had adhered to the injunctions, which immediately affected about 300 to 350 Muslim inmates at the Solano County prison, which is between Sacramento and San Francisco.

Bach said there may be wide ramifications, because there are Muslims in most California prisons, and Islam "is the fastest-growing religion" among inmates in the state's prison system.

She said prison officials were concerned that if inmates got good-time work credit for the periods they spent in Muslim observances, other groups might ask for similar benefits.

In its ruling, the court also let stand a lower court decision barring enforcement of a California prison regulation banning beards worn for religious purposes.

Bach said that although the prison will honor that, the Department of Corrections remained concerned about it.

Prison administrators said the ban was designed to help readily identify inmates and help prevent escapes, find escapees and control movement within prisons.

Muslim inmates had argued that the beards were a requirement of their religion.

Judge Karlton had said a half-inch beard posed no problem.
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