Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Prof. Caplan writes ACLU Amicus Brief in Religious Freedom Case

Prof. Aaron Caplan was the primary author of an amicus brief to the Fifth Circuit in Ali v. Stephens, a case involving the religious rights of prisoners. He teaches courses in Constitutional Law and First Amendment, including freedom of religion.

David Rasheed Ali is an observant Sunni Muslim who is incarcerated by the state of Texas. He has a sincere religious belief that he should grow a beard about as long as his fist (three or four inches) and wear a kufi (a white, seamless, knit cap with small holes) during the day. The prison's rules forbid this, even though the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 requires prisons to accommodate religious exercise unless there is a "compelling" reason not to. Even after the prison lost in the trial court, and after the US Supreme Court held earlier in 2015 that the Act required a prison in Arkansas to allow an inmate to grow a religiously-motivated beard, Texas nonetheless appealed to the Fifth Circuit.

In its brief, the prison claimed that the Act required courts to defer to the decisions of prison administrators.Prof. Caplan's amicus brief (filed on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union) traced the language and history of the Act, explaining that Congress enacted the law because it wanted courts to be less deferential to prisons than they previously had been. In addition to the constitutional and moral reasons to allow religious freedom for prisoners, the brief explained how Congress also had concrete goals in mind.
Congress sought to replace deference with strict and independent judicial review in part to achieve the powerful practical benefits of religious liberty in prison. Freedom of religion enhances prisoners’ adjustment to incarceration, improving their behavior, reducing violations of prisons rules and enhancing prison safety. Moreover, robust religious freedom for prisoners can aid rehabilitation and reduce recidivism, benefiting society as a whole.

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