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BJC Joins Brief Asking Supreme Court to Bolster Prisoner Protections E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Baptist Joint Committee, along with the Interfaith Alliance, Americans United, and other groups, has filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in the case of Sossamon v Texas. The question there is whether plaintiffs bringing RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) claims may ask for monetary damages. The 5th Circuit said no, but in their brief supporting Texas inmate Harvey Sossamon (pdf), amici argue that to deny damages is to leave RLUIPA essentially toothless in protecting the religious freedom rights of prisoners.

The fundamental problem is that it is all too easy for prison officials to moot prisoners’ claims for injunctive relief and, if no damages are available, avoid judicial scrutiny of misconduct. Only a claim for damages can save a cause from mootness.

In other words, without the threat of a monetary fine as punishment, prison officials are not being held responsible for violating an inmate's rights. Instead, they only need to get around to putting an end to the violation, one way or another - by accommodating the request (often after years of delay), by moving the prisoner to a different facility, or by dragging the process on so long that the inmate is released before the case can be heard. In any of those instances, years worth of violations may have gone by, unpunished. Only the prospect of damages, the brief argues, can hold the state accountable in the way Congress intended in passing RLUIPA.

The Supreme Court is set to hear this case during the upcoming October term. 

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