Protecting the Religious Rights of Inmates Has Implications beyond the Prison Walls

January 26, 2023 | Bobby Miller
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In 2021, Damon Landor was nearing the end of a sentence for drug possession when prison officials forcibly shaved his head, despite his protests that to do so would violate his religious beliefs as a Rastafarian. Although the law—which could be applied just as easily to observant Jewish convicts—appears to be on his side, as written it is virtually unenforceable. Bobby Miller describes two lawyers’ efforts to change that:

Landor is contesting a lower court’s decision that he is not entitled to damages under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which safeguards the religious freedom of incarcerated persons. [H]is case was dismissed on the theory that RLUIPA does not permit damages against prison officials. State-prison officials in other jurisdictions have also removed the beards and dreadlocks of Muslim and Rastafarian inmates; refused to provide detainees with kosher, halal, or other foods in keeping with religious dietary laws; and prohibited them from wearing hijabs, yarmulkes, and other head coverings.

Zack Tripp, one of the lawyers representing Landor, explained the shocking facts of the case: . . . “In 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit directed Louisiana that it must grant religious exceptions and allow Rastafarian men like Mr. Landor to keep their dreadlocks in prison. Yet, when Mr. Landor handed that decision to the prison officials just weeks before his release, they tossed the court’s opinion, shackled him to the table, and had him shaven completely bald. Mr. Landor’s allegations show that, without a damages remedy, Congress’s protections and the court’s decisions interpreting those protections aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. No damages means no accountability.”

RLUIPA isn’t only relevant for the imprisoned. It is a critical statute for religious practitioners everywhere. RLUIPA also provides religious institutions with a means of circumventing restrictive zoning-law limits on their use of real estate. That is why Landor’s case has broader implications and should attract support from all those who care about religious freedom.

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