Inmates do not forfeit the right to practice their religious faith while they are incarcerated. But of course that right is not unlimited. Officers can impose certain restrictions when an inmate’s religious practices would conflict with the institution’s legitimate interests in safety, security, and good order. There is a lot of case law about those restrictions, both as a constitutional matter under the First Amendment, and under a federal statute, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a)(1)–(2)—which is even more protective of inmates’ rights than the Constitution.
Two important threshold questions often arise when evaluating a situation involving an inmate’s request for a religious accommodation. First, what is a religion within the meaning of these laws? And second, how sincere must an inmate be in his or her beliefs for them to justify legal protection? Many officers may have seen situations where an inmate presented what may have been a secular request as a religious one, either to improve the chance that it would be accommodated, or sometimes as an intentional effort to create a headache for officers.
The Supreme Court has said that “officials may appropriately question whether a prisoner’s religiosity, asserted as the basis for a requested accommodation, is authentic.” Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 725 n. 13 (2005). However, looking at court cases decided over the years, it is clear that officers should be very cautious in screening and denying religious requests solely on the basis that the inmate’s professed beliefs are not actually part of any organized religion, or that the inmate is not sincere in his or her beliefs.
As a starting point, officers should know that many faith traditions beyond the major world religions are religions within the meaning of the law. In addition to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and other broadly recognized faiths, courts have deemed many sects within those major religions and other traditions such as Rastafarianism, Satanism, and atheism to be religions. Recognizing the difficulty of passing judgment on what constitutes a bona fide religious faith, courts will sometimes assume for the sake of argument that an inmate’s professed faith is a religion—even when the group is connected with acts of violence or a belief in racial superiority. See In re Long Term Administrative Segregation of Inmates Designated as Five Percenters, 174 F.3d 464, 468 (4th Cir. 1999) (“[T]he [trial] court assumed—as do we—that the Five Percenters [a group classified as a gang for other purposes] are a religious group entitled to First Amendment protection. We thus avoid the difficult and delicate task of examining the nature and sincerity of the inmates’ professed beliefs.”).
Officers should also be cautious about denying a request out of a sense that an inmate is not practicing his or her professed faith correctly. A lack of basic knowledge about the history or practices of the faith is a relevant consideration, but an inmate need not abide by the professed faith with saintly devotion throughout his or her incarceration to be entitled to a religious accommodation. For example, an inmate should not be presumed to be insincere and denied access to celebrations of the Islamic holy month based on one break of the Ramadan fast, Lovelace v. Lee, 472 F.3d 174 (4th Cir. 2006), or denied accommodations of his Jewish faith because he had been observed eating non-kosher food from the canteen, Young v. Lane, 733 F. Supp. 1205 (N.D. Ill. 1990).
Along similar lines, an inmate need not practice his or her purported faith with doctrinal accuracy to justify a request for accommodation. In some facilities, requests for accommodation are reviewed by a chaplain or local faith leader, who will sometimes respond by saying “your faith does not require that practice.” A review by a religious leader or scholar may be helpful in evaluating a request, but it generally should not be the sole basis for denying it outright. An inmate who sincerely believes a practice is an important part of his or her personal understanding of the faith may be entitled to an accommodation even if that practice is actually out of step with canon law. RLUIPA itself defines religious exercise to include “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by or central to, a system of religious belief.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-5(7)(A).
None of this is to say that every inmate request styled as a religious accommodation must be granted. Some requests will be so outrageous or so clearly motivated by secular desires that officers will be right to deny them. And occasionally the facility will have clear proof—through an admission from the inmate himself or herself or some other evidence—that a request was pretextual. In the absence of such proof, however, officers evaluating a religious request generally will do better to focus less on the inmate’s religious sincerity and more on how the request might affect the facility’s legitimate penological interests.