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United States: Federal Court Rules State Prison Must Provide Access to Televised Prayer Services

(Sept. 18, 2009) A federal appeals court has ruled that a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), requires the Massachusetts Department of Corrections to provide prison inmates held in segregated units of prisons access to prayer services via closed-circuit television.

Under the RLUIPA, no governmental entity may impose a substantial burden on an institutionalized person's exercise of religion, unless the government demonstrates that the burden furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling interest.

Muslim inmates held at a Massachusetts prison's “special management unit” (SMU) – where certain prisoners are segregated from the general prison population for disciplinary or protective purposes – sued the Department of Corrections, alleging it violated their right to freely exercise their religion by preventing them from attending Friday group prayer services. Following a trial, the federal district court in Connecticut ruled that while the ban on participation by SMU inmates in Friday prayers serves a compelling state interest of promoting order in the prison, there was no evidence presented of any technical reason that the SMU inmates could not attend Friday prayer services by means of closed-circuit television. It issued an injunction requiring closed-circuit broadcasting whenever Muslim inmates are housed in an SMU in any Massachusetts prison. The Department of Corrections appealed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the district court did not abuse its discretion in issuing the injunction for relief across all Massachusetts prisons. It found that the district court narrowly tailored the injunction to provide relief no further than necessary to correct the violation of the federal right of SMU prisoners to freely exercise their religion. (Crawford v. Clarke, No. 08-2100 (1st Cir. Aug. 24, 2009), available at http://www.ca1.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/getopn.pl?OPINION=08-2100P.01A.)