Incarceration, Accommodation, and Strict Scrutiny

Note — Volume 95, Issue 8

95 Va. L. Rev. 2053
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The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) requires the application of strict scrutiny to policies substantially burdening the religious exercise of prisoners. Although RLUIPA was passed without dissent, critics and commentators have tended to accept three skeptical claims about the use of strict scrutiny in this context: (1) changes in the formal level of scrutiny applicable to claims for religious accommodation are irrelevant to case outcomes; (2) even the most sympathetic statutory language will not improve prisoners’ chances of success in seeking accommodations; (3) using the language of strict scrutiny in prison cases will diminish its force in other areas of the law. 

This Note challenges these skeptical conclusions. Since RLUIPA was passed in 2000, federal courts have reviewed hundreds of claims brought by prisoners seeking accommodations. Some federal circuit courts have continued to defer to the judgment of prison administrators when denying exemptions. Other federal courts, however, are employing a more rigorous form of review, taking a “hard look” at prison policies that burden religion, and reviewing carefully the claims of prison administrators. Moreover, rather than diluting strict scrutiny in other areas of the law, these courts are using doctrine from outside of the accommodation context to resolve prisoner claims. The emergence of a searching form of review in the prison context is surprising. After detailing an emerging conflict among the federal courts of appeal, this Note argues that firm constitutional footing, statutory specificity, and the importation of searching review from equal protection and free speech cases all help to explain this unexpected development. This Note concludes with some thoughts about how proponents of religious accommodation should proceed in light of the limited but real success of RLUIPA.

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  Volume 95 / Issue 8  

Making Good on Good Intentions

By Katharine T. Bartlett
95 Va. L. Rev. 1893

The State of State Anti-takeover Law

By Michal Barzuza
95 Va. L. Rev. 1973

Incarceration, Accommodation, and Strict Scrutiny

By James Nelson
95 Va. L. Rev. 2053

Internet Radio: The Case for a Technology Neutral Royalty Standard

By Andrew Stockment
95 Va. L. Rev. 2129