- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005


The Supreme Court yesterday upheld the constitutionality of a federal law requiring state prisons to accommodate inmates’ religions.

Also yesterday, the court said it would consider reinstating a death-penalty law that requires juries to sentence a defendant to die — rather than serve life in prison — when the evidence for and against imposing death appears equal.

In the religion case, justices unanimously sided with Ohio inmates, including a witch and a Satanist, who had claimed they were denied access to religious literature, ceremonial items and time to worship.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the 2000 law, which was intended to protect the rights of prisoners, is not an unconstitutional government promotion of religion.

“It confers no privileged status on any particular religious sect, and singles out no bona fide faith for disadvantageous treatment,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.

The law requires states that receive federal money to accommodate prisoners’ religious beliefs unless wardens can show that the accommodation would be disruptive.

Opponents of the law had argued that inmate requests for particular diets, special haircuts or religious symbols could make it harder to manage prisons.

“We do not read [the law] to elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution’s need to maintain order and safety,” wrote Justice Ginsburg. “We have no cause to believe that [the law] would not be applied in an appropriately balanced way, without sensitivity to security concerns.”

Justices left open the door for a future challenge, on grounds that the law as applied overburdens prisons.

In the death-penalty case, justices will hear arguments next fall in Kansas’ appeal of a state Supreme Court ruling that found the law unconstitutional.

The 1994 law says if the evidence for and against imposing a sentence of death is equal, Kansas juries must choose death instead of life in prison.

The Kansas court ruling last December left the state without a capital-punishment law and invalidated the death sentences of six convicted killers. The high court case involves Michael Marsh II, a Wichita man convicted of fatally shooting and stabbing a woman and setting a fire that killed the woman’s toddler.

The Supreme Court will consider how juries weigh evidence for and against death sentences, as well as some technical issues, including whether it’s proper for the Supreme Court to intervene.

In other action yesterday, the court lifted an injunction that kept a disgruntled former client of defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran from picketing outside Mr. Cochran’s office.

Justices did not address broad free-speech questions raised by the appeal because Mr. Cochran died of a brain tumor a week after the case was argued in March.

Instead, the court ruled 7-2 that in light of Mr. Cochran’s death, a judge’s order limiting the demonstrations of Ulysses Tory “amounts to an overly broad prior restraint upon speech.”

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