Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a troubling lower court decision involving the religious liberty rights of an observant Jewish inmate from North Carolina. In a powerful dissent, Justice Alito pointed out why the lower court was wrong and his fellow Justices should have taken up the case.
Israel Ben-Levi claimed that the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) violated his rights under the Free Exercise Clause and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by denying his request to study Torah with two other Jewish inmates. In rejecting his request, NCDPS asserted that the inmate misunderstood his own faith. For a group to study Torah, NCDPS claimed, there must be ten Jewish men – a minyan – or qualified Jewish leader such as Rabbi. The lower court agreed with this argument and also found Mr. Ben-Levi was not subject to future harm because he had been transferred to a prison with a Rabbi.
Justice Alito’s dissent correctly pointed out that this decision was discriminatory “[b]ecause NCDPS’s policy rests on its understanding of Jewish doctrine, the policy does not apply to other religions.” Furthermore, it violates longstanding First Amendment case law against government interpreting religious doctrine:
[F]ederal courts have no warrant to evaluate “the validity of [Ben-Levi’s] interpretations.” … By ignoring Ben-Levi’s actual beliefs and focusing solely on NCDPS’s understanding of Judaism, respondent and the courts below considered the wrong question.
Although the Supreme Court’s rejection of the case does not approve of the lower court decision, we could not agree more with Justice Alito that “the Court’s indifference to this discriminatory infringement of religious liberty is disappointing.”