Is It Legal To Limit Inmates To One Holy Day Observance?


Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year, but some of Maryland’s Jewish inmates might not be permitted to observe the holiday today, reports the Baltimore Sun. The state guarantees the observance of one religious holy day for prisoners. Although many institutions permit two, that practice forces Jewish inmates to choose among Yom Kippur and the religion’s other significant holidays. Officials say that consenting to at least one religious observance is the fairest way to respond to a diverse prison population. “We have authorized 29 religions. That’s a lot of holy days,” said Nancy Williams, director of religious services for Maryland’s prisons.

Advocates for the religious needs of inmates say the policy violates federal law by requiring inmates to work on holy days and prohibiting them from practicing other rituals. “An inmate doesn’t leave his religious rights at the jailhouse door. It’s not part of the punishment,” said Bob Moore of the Aleph Institute, which promotes minority religious rights in prisons and the military. He cites the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which prohibits governments from imposing a substantial burden on the religious practice of people in prison. Under federal law, corrections officials must name a “compelling interest” – such as security – to bar a religious practice. Maryland has about 23,000 inmates in custody. Of those whol declare a religious affiliation, nearly half are Protestant Christian and nearly a quarter are Muslim;, 5 percent are Catholic, 1.6 percent are Native American and 0.9 percent are Jewish.


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