U.S. Supreme Court

Texas Immune from Prisoner Damages Suit Under Religious Rights Law, Supreme Court Rules

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Sovereign immunity protects the state of Texas from a damages lawsuit by a prisoner who contends worship restrictions violated his rights under federal law, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a 6-2 decision.

The state did not waive sovereign immunity to private suits for money damages by accepting federal funding, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his majority opinion (PDF). The inmate had sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious freedom in prisons and in land use.

RLUIPA provides that a person may assert a violation of the statute in a judicial proceeding “and obtain appropriate relief against a government.” That language, Thomas wrote, “is not the unequivocal expression of state consent that our precedents require” for a waiver of state immunity.

Although the case concerns rights to worship in prison, some religious institutions had feared a ruling against the prisoner would make it harder for them to fight local zoning regulations under RLUIPA, according to a preview of the issues in Texas Lawyer. The story quotes Kelly Shackelford, Liberty Institute’s chief counsel. “The law’s not very useful if you can’t get damages,” Shackelford said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued in dissent that the phrase “appropriate relief” authorizes suits for money damages. She was joined by Justice Stephen G. Breyer. “By depriving prisoners of a damages remedy for violations of their statutory rights,” Sotomayor wrote, “the majority ensures that plaintiffs suing state defendants under RLUIPA will be forced to seek enforcement of those rights with one hand tied behind their backs.”

Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case, Sossamon v. Texas.

RLUIPA was enacted after Congress’ first attempt to protect religious rights was held unconstitutional as applied to state and local governments. Congress cited its spending clause and commerce clause authority in enacting RLUIPA; its authority under those clauses was not at issue in the case, Thomas wrote in a footnote.

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