Religious Freedom in Correctional Facilities

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Religious Freedom in Correctional Facilities


Gordon Graham
Category: Corrections

Gordon Graham here with Today’s Tip from Lexipol. Today’s Tip is for all my friends in corrections. What I’d like to talk about today is protecting the religious freedoms of the inmates in your facility. 

Inmate religious protections may include fasting, special foods, and eating at specific times.

The Supreme Court has long held that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion applies inside correctional institutions. This protection has been expanded and explained by Congress, the courts, and various state legislatures. So we have plenty of good guidance on what to do and what not to do. 

First, the legalese. An inmate’s right to exercise “sincerely held” religious beliefs is balanced against governmental interests such as maintaining facility safety and order. The government may not impose a substantial burden on inmates’ religious freedoms unless that burden is necessary for a “compelling governmental interest.” Even then, the government must use the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. 

What does this mean in a practical sense? Inmate religious protections may include fasting, special foods, and eating at specific times. It could mean attending worship services, special observation periods, and the use or possession of religious objects. It might also include religious literature and specific grooming and clothing.  

As you know, your agency’s policies impose certain restrictions on inmate activities. If a policy inadvertently imposes a rule that impacts members of one faith but not anyone else, the courts will carefully scrutinize it. It’s critical your facility policies and procedures don’t conflict with the law.  

And when you’re going about your daily responsibilities, be careful about the rules you impose, even if you feel they have a legitimate purpose. If an inmate raises a religious objection, take that seriously. Consult a supervisor or legal counsel when needed.  

Remember: If you do something to restrict an inmate’s free exercise of religion — whether intentionally or not — you could be penalized for violating the inmate’s constitutional rights. 

 And that’s Today’s Tip from Lexipol. Until next time, Gordon Graham signing off. 

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