Supreme Court Denies Inmate Right To Damages For Religious Violation


Texas may not be sued for money damages by an inmate who claimed prison rules violated his right to religious practice, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday, says the Austin American-Statesman. Harvey Leroy Sossamon III, serving a life term for murder, charged that disciplinary rules that restricted inmates to their cells improperly kept him from attending religious services. He also claimed officials, citing “overexaggerated” security concerns, wrongly denied him access to the prison chapel.

Sossamon’s request for a court injunction ended when the prison abandoned its restrictions on religious practice. His effort to receive money damages was denied by U.S. Judge Sam Sparks of Austin and by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The high court, in a 6-2 opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, agreed that the federal religious-liberty law, which allows prisoners to sue for “appropriate relief,” did not give inmates the ability to collect money damages from state governments. In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said there is nothing ambiguous about the concept of appropriate relief, which typically includes money.

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