On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Asks Supreme Court to Overturn Ruling That Only ‘Mandatory’ Religious Practices Merit First Amendment Protections

March 23, 2018

WASHINGTON, DC — Urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn lower court rulings that deem only “mandatory” religious practices as worthy of First Amendment accommodations, thereby rendering many common religious practices such as reading a Bible unprotected, The Rutherford Institute has asked the Court to ensure that prisoners are afforded the fundamental protections they are entitled to under the U.S. Constitution. In weighing in on the case of Hoever v. Belleis, Rutherford Institute attorneys asked the Supreme Court to hear the case of Conraad Hoever, a Christian inmate whose First Amendment rights were violated after prison officials refused to provide him with one of his own Bibles when he was placed in solitary confinement, and instead gave him a Spanish-language Bible, which he could not read.

Attorneys Johnathan Smith, Sirine Shebaya, and Matthew Callahan of Muslim Advocates assisted The Rutherford Institute in presenting the religious freedom arguments in Hoever v. Belleis.

“This case is about so much more than just one prisoner’s right to read a Bible. It’s about recognizing that in a prison state or police state, which is what we now have, there is no difference between the treatment meted out to a law-abiding citizen and a convicted felon: both are equally suspect and treated as criminals, without any of the special rights and privileges reserved for the governing elite,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “At a time when America’s prison population is growing, laws criminalizing the most mundane activities are on the rise, states have a financial incentive to keep private prisons at capacity, and the courts are inclined to side with law enforcement in matters of security, we would do well to keep in mind that whatever treatment is meted out to ‘the least of these’ in our society is no different from how the rest of us will eventually be treated. In the government’s eyes, we are all prisoners of the American police state.”

In March 2013, Conraad Hoever—an inmate held in Florida’s Franklin Correctional Institution—was placed in solitary confinement for disrespecting a corrections officer. While in confinement, Hoever, a devout Christian who believes that he is called to study the Bible daily and that these daily devotionals prevent him from falling from grace, asked for one of his three Bibles and his devotional materials. However, the corrections officer in charge refused to provide Hoever with his personal religious materials and instead gave him a Spanish-language Bible, despite being informed that Hoever did not know enough Spanish to read the Spanish-language Bible.

During the 26 days that Hoever spent in solitary confinement, he was unable to exercise his right to practice his Christian faith by reading the Bible. Upon release from confinement, Hoever sued prison officials for violating his right to exercise his religion under the First Amendment. The lower courts dismissed this claim, ruling that the prison’s denial of a Bible that Hoever could read was not a “substantial burden” on his right to exercise his religion because Hoever could not show that reading the Bible daily was a mandatory practice of Christianity. In asking the Supreme Court to review the case, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute and Muslim Advocates argue that even non-mandatory religious practices are protected from infringement by the First Amendment and that prisoners, particularly those who practice minority religions, are in danger of being cut off from engaging in many spiritual practices they need to sustain them through incarceration.

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Nisha Whitehead
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