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On The Front Lines

U.S. Supreme Court Paves the Way for Government Restrictions on Religious Activities Not Considered ‘Mandatory’ Such as Bible Reading

WASHINGTON, DC — In refusing to hear the First Amendment case of a Christian prisoner who was denied access to a legible Bible while in solitary confinement, the U.S. Supreme Court has paved the way for government officials to restrict religious activities that are not deemed to be “mandatory” religious practices.

The lower courts had ruled that the prison’s denial of a legible Bible was not a “substantial burden” on the prisoner’s right to exercise his religion because he could not show that reading the Bible daily was a mandatory practice of Christianity. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute warn that the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the lower court ruling to stand in Hoever v. Bellies could render many common religious practices, such as reading a Bible, unprotected by the constitutional guarantee to free exercise of religion.

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. In weighing in on the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute had warned 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.

Case History

March 23, 2018 • Rutherford Institute Asks Supreme Court to Overturn Ruling That Only ‘Mandatory’ Religious Practices Merit First Amendment Protections


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