Analyzing the Religious Free Exercise Rights of Inmates: The Significance of Pell, Jones, and Wolfish


Many correctional institutions in the United States were originally intended to help educate criminals in Christian ways of life.’ Today, while this overt religious indoctrination has been abandoned, inmates seeking to practice non-Christian religions often face difficult struggles with unsympathetic prison administrators. Confronted with the refusal of administrators to accommodate their religious needs, Muslims, Jews, and other minority religious groups have resorted to the courts for protection of their religious rights. The extent to which the reluctance of administrators to accommodate the religious needs of non-Christian inmates stems from cultural prejudices is not for this Article to determine. The possibility that prejudice may be readily and unconsciously disguised as a concern for security, however, indicates that courts should carefully scrutinize regulations that infringe upon inmate rights of religious free exercise.

The Supreme Court of the United States has provided little guidance in establishing a uniform standard by which to assess the religious free exercise claims of inmates. In the last nine years, the Court delineated inmate rights of speech and association in Procunier v. Martinez, Pell v. ProcunierJones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, Inc., and Bell v. Wolfish.

Federal courts have differed sharply over the relevance of these decisions to religious free exercise claims brought by inmates. In two cases arising in the Third and Eighth Circuits, for example, district courts subjected the religious free exercise claims of inmates to a “least restrictive means” test. Each case was reversed on appeal based on determinations that the Wolfish line of cases required application of a “reasonableness” standard. This Article will argue that the least restrictive means test, rather than the reasonableness test, should apply to infringements on inmate rights of religious free exercise.

The two standards differ significantly in the allocation of burdens placed on plaintiff and defendant. Under the reasonableness test, the inmate-plaintiff must first prove that a prison regulation infringes upon a right protected by the free exercise clause. The burden then shifts to the state to establish that the regulation serves a substantial state interest such as maintenance of institutional security and order or rehabilitation. Unless the plaintiff can then show that the regulation is irrational, or an “exaggerated response” to the interest asserted by the state, the regulation will be held constitutional. In contrast, the least restrictive means test requires the state to establish not only that the challenged regulation serves a substantial state interest, but also that it is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

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