RICHMOND — A federal appeals court has upheld a federal law that protects the rights of prison inmates to practice their religion.
The state of Virginia had challenged the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), contending that Congress had exceeded its authority by tying compliance with the law with federal funding for prisons.
But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument Friday, saying that the law does not force states to change prison policies but merely to abide by federal law.
“Because Virginia voluntarily accepted federal correctional funds, it cannot avoid the substantive requirements of RLUIPA,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote.
RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, blocks any government from passing a land-use regulation — such as a zoning law — that would discriminate against a religious organization. It also prohibits prisons from blocking inmates from worshipping as they please.
Friday’s ruling stems from a case brought by Ira Madison, a Hebrew Israelite and a member of the Church of God and Saints of Christ in Suffolk.
Madison sued the state and various Department of Corrections officials in U.S. District Court in Roanoke in 2001, saying that his requests for kosher meals at the Buckingham Correctional Center were denied.
The Virginia Department of Corrections contended that nonpork, vegetarian prison menus were an adequate alternative.
Department officials also questioned Madison’s religious sincerity, Friday’s ruling stated.
Madison has argued that the state violated RLUIPA.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the U.S. Department of Justice all filed briefs in the case in support of the law.
“RLUIPA’s enactment is a recognition that prison officials often fail to honor prisoners’ basic religious rights,” ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca Glenberg said earlier this year.
“It is disturbing to see Virginia once again trying to evade its obligation under federal law to accommodate inmates’ religion.”
Virginia has tried twice to use the Madison case to overturn the law.
Before the most recent challenge, the state in 2003 argued that RLUIPA violated the First Amendment’s mandate for separation of church and state.
The 4th Circuit disagreed.
Ohio and Georgia also have tried to overturn the law, said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the Becket Fund.
“It seems like the states haven’t gotten the message,” he said. “Anytime that anyone has tried to challenge RLUIPA, they have ultimately failed.”