Dr. Paul Bellino
Dr. Bellino is the Founding Pastor, Atlanta's Church of All Nations, 650 Rowland Rd., Stone Mountain, Georgia .
Supreme Court upholds Religious Freedom in RLUIPA – Commentary by Dr. Paul E. Bellino
Back on November 12, 2003, some of the saddest news came to our attention.
Having been a participant in ministry to prisoners across the State of Georgia for well over
fifteen years, first as a church pastor, and later as a chaplain with the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police and
with the Dekalb County Sheriff's Department in metropolitan Atlanta for a number of years, we have had the priviledge
to counsel individually and collectively up to a dozen inmates at one time; and to conduct Bible studies, preaching
services; along with outreach to the family members of inmates whereby a number of them have come to know Jesus as
their personal Saviour and Lord; and thereby to know the comfort of sins forgiven and the assurance of a new life in
prison; as well the prospective of an improved lifestyle as they were released to be with their families once again
in the outside world.
We were in November 2003 rightfully concerned that we were entering "the times that try
men's souls" as the law of the land was being challenged through our ever-powerful judicial system.
In Cincinnati, the Federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled against the law that
protects the ability of prisoners to practice their faith while behind bars. In the case of Cutter v. Wilkinson, No.
03-9877, a panel of judges had ruled the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) provided an
endorsement of religion by the government, violating the establishment clause of the first amendment. The court
determined that "by enacting RLUIPA, Congress had advanced religion by giving prisoners a preferred status in the
The court declared that accommodating the prison inmates' religious practices was an
endorsement of those very religions. This, of course, was not true, and was without merit.
Some prison inmates were unable to have available to them religious services and literature
without authorization and aide of the prison officials. Some prison authorities declared that "a man alone in his cell
can worship God, and that is all the accommodation we need to provide."
This is not the case for Christian inmates because Christians are called by God to a
corporate worship, as such, "Where two or three are gathered together in my Name, there am I in the midst of them,"
and when authorities preclude inmates from gathering together as the body of Christ to worship the Lord and to learn
His teachings, they are invading the God-given rights of those prisoners. It is those rights that were recognized,
and not granted, in the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
Justice Fellowship (a subsidiary of Prison Fellowship Ministries, begun by Chuck Colson), of
which Mr. Pat Nolan is president, perservered to pass RLUIPA, for the very reason that prisoners could obtain
religious literature and services. The ruling of the Cincinnati court was a great set back in this regard. Numerous
officials in the prison system have been truly in support of the religious programs operating in the system.
However, there are those who see it as an added work factor, and quite often object to the
service of prison chaplains and those volunteer workers from the local community. With regard to the RLUIPA bill, it
was obvious from the outset that this element of prison authorities would work to disallow the good efforts of RLUIPA.
Thankfully, a positive position was taken by the Seventh and Ninth Circuit courts with
regard to the bill which took this case to the Supreme Court of the land.
The loss of religious privilege would adversely affect the inmates of our prison system
and would be detrimental to the efforts against recidivism of our entire prison population; which would contribute to
higher rates of crime and incarceration for those prisoners.
Justice Fellowship believed that prisoners' rights to practice their faiths could be
protected while maintaining prison safety and security. As a chaplain in the prison system of the State of Georgia,
we said a hearty "Amen!" to that position. We joined in prayer together November, 2003, with any number of you, that
the Lord would intervene in the affairs of our prison system, and of this great country at large. Praise God, He did!
In fact, on May 31, 2005, we saw the results of the Lord's intervention.
Mathew D. Staver, President and General Counsel of Liberty Counsel, stated, "The Court's
decision today is good news for the free exercise of religion. This is a good day for houses of worship and
institutionalized persons. Religious free exercise has been restored and set on solid gound." Staver concluded,
"RLUIPA is beyond any question a powerful weapon to be used, not only by prisonsers, but also by houses of worship
faced with zoning laws that restrict religious freedom."
These indeed are "the times that try men's souls", but it is still true that "We are more
than conquerors through Him that loved us." (Romans 8:37).
By His grace,
Dr. Paul E. Bellino
Dr. Bellino is Chaplain for the Georgia Heritage Council, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Dahlonega, Georgia, and
the Military Order of The Stars and Bars, Gainesville, Georgia. He is the Founding Pastor, Atlanta's Church of All Nations, 650 Rowland Rd., Stone Mountain, Georgia
Supreme Court Upholds Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act - May 31, 2005
Cincinnati Court Rules Against Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)
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