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Thu Feb 27, 2020, 04:07 PM

The Supreme Court Nears the Moment of Truth on Religion.by Linda Greenhouse

'The majority’s view of the Constitution’s free-exercise clause poses a threat to civil society.

A few years ago, two Michigan prison inmates, proclaiming themselves adherents of the “Christian Identity” religion, sought the prison’s official recognition to be allowed to conduct their own worship services, apart from other inmates. The prison already recognized 20 religions, including a number of Christian denominations, but the two men said they couldn’t pray with others because their religion demanded “white separatism.” While they observed several Jewish holidays, including Passover and Yom Kippur, they said they couldn’t join Jewish inmates in prayer because “the Jewish faith denies Jesus Christ.”

The official in charge of “religious programming” for inmates advised the prison administration to deny the men’s request. He noted in his memo that “the Christian Identity movement is known to have extreme racist and anti-Semitic views with a history of violence in the United States,” along with ties to the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups. Giving Christian Identity a recognized place in prison life, he warned, “would pose a threat to the custody and security of our correctional facilities.”

The two prisoners sued under a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. They lost in Federal District Court. This month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned that ruling. The court said the district judge, Phillip Green, had misapplied the law by weighing the prison’s interest in safety as part of his analysis of whether the prison was placing an improper burden on the men’s exercise of their chosen religion.

Say what?

If you just did a double-take, so did I when I came upon this opinion. If you wondered whether the members of the three-judge appellate panel were recent Trump appointees who perhaps share his administration’s desire to elevate religious claims above all else, so did I. They were not.

And in fact, I don’t really fault the judges — Richard Griffin, Jane Stranch and Bruce Donald — for a decision that strikes me as ridiculous. Christian Identity has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a unique anti-Semitic and racist theology” that has held a position of “commanding influence” on the extremist right. What sensible person, or judge, would want to allow it to flourish inside a prison?

The startling fact of the matter is that Judges Griffin, Stranch and Donald were applying the law as they found it — as the Supreme Court has handed it to them in a series of decisions instructing judges to accept almost any religious claim, no matter how preposterous, at face value and to put the government to an extremely tough test to justify any infringement on a “sincere” religious belief. '>>>


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