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2.8: Freedom of Religion- O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz 482 U.S. 342 (1987)

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    U.S. Supreme Court

    O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342 (1987)

    O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz

    No. 85-1722

    Argued March 24, 1987

    Decided June 9, 1987

    482 U.S. 342

    Respondents, prison inmates and members of the Islamic faith, brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 contending that two policies adopted by New Jersey prison officials prevented them from attending Jumu’ah, a Muslim congregational service held on Friday afternoons, and thereby violated their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The first such policy, Standard 853, required inmates in respondents’ custody classifications to work outside the buildings in which they were housed and in which Jumu’ah was held, while the second, a policy memorandum, prohibited inmates assigned to outside work from returning to those buildings during the day. The Federal District Court concluded that no constitutional violation had occurred, but the Court of Appeals vacated and remanded, ruling that the prison policies could be sustained only if the State showed that the challenged regulations were intended to and did serve the penological goal of security, and that no reasonable method existed by which prisoners’ religious rights could be accommodated without creating bona fide security problems. The court also held that the expert testimony of prison officials should be given due weight on, but is not dispositive of, the accommodation issue.


    1. The Court of Appeals erred in placing the burden on prison officials to disprove the availability of alternative methods of accommodating prisoners’ religious rights. That approach fails to reflect the respect and deference the Constitution allows for the judgment of prison administrators. P. 482 U. S. 350.

    2. The District Court’s findings establish that the policies challenged here are reasonably related to legitimate penological interests, and therefore do not offend the Free Exercise Clause. Both policies have a rational connection to the legitimate governmental interests in institutional order and security invoked to justify them, as is demonstrated by findings that Standard 853 was a response to critical overcrowding and was designed to ease tension and drain on the facilities during that part of the day when the inmates were outside, and that the policy memorandum was necessary since returns from outside work details generated congestion and delays at the main gate, a high-risk area, and since the Homeneed to decide return requests placed pressure on guards supervising outside work details. Rehabilitative concerns also support the policy memorandum, in light of testimony indicating that corrections officials sought thereby to simulate working conditions and responsibilities in society. Although the policies at issue may prevent some Muslim prisoners from attending Jumu’ah, their reasonableness is supported by the fact that they do not deprive respondents of all forms of religious exercise, but instead allow participation in a number of Muslim religious ceremonies. Furthermore, there are no obvious, easy alternatives to the policies, since both of respondents’ suggested accommodations would, in the judgment of prison officials, have adverse effects on the prison institution. Placing all Muslim inmates in inside work details would be inconsistent with the legitimate concerns underlying Standard 853, while providing weekend labor for Muslims would require extra supervision that would be a drain on scarce human resources. Both proposed accommodations would also threaten prison security by fostering “affinity groups” likely to challenge institutional authority, while any special arrangements for one group would create a perception of favoritism on the part of other inmates. Pp. 482 U. S. 350-353.

    3. Even where claims are made under the First Amendment, this Court will not substitute its judgment on difficult and sensitive matters of institutional administration for the determinations of those charged with the formidable task of running a prison. P. 482 U. S. 353.

    782 F.2d 416, reversed.

    REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, POWELL, O’CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post p. 482 U. S. 354.

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