Let inmates worship, court says: The Muslim prisoners also can grow beards, the appeals panel rules.

By Claire Cooper -- Bee Legal Affairs Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- In a victory for Muslim prisoners in California, a federal appeals court ruled Friday that wardens can't interfere with inmates' religious practices without proving a compelling security need.

 The 3-0 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the first of its kind by a federal appeals court, upheld the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act against a constitutional attack by the state in a case that began six years ago.

 The 2000 U.S. statute conditions the states' receipt of federal prison funds on the religious liberty they permit their inmates. The amount at stake for California in the Muslim inmate case appears to be about $240 million annually.

 The upshot of the ruling is that Muslim inmates can't be disciplined with loss of good-time credits or subjected to other penalties for attending the one-hour Friday worship services known as Jumu'ah, as the Quran requires, or for wearing the half-inch beards that symbolize loyalty to Muhammad.

 "Congress has a strong interest in making certain that federal funds do not subsidize conduct that infringes individual liberties...," wrote Circuit Judge Dorothy W. Nelson of Pasadena. "The federal government also has a strong interest in monitoring the treatment of federal inmates housed in state prisons and in contributing to their rehabilitation."

 Expressly protected by the decision are the approximately 300 practicing Muslims incarcerated at California State Prison at Solano. They're the same men who were covered by 14 three-month preliminary injunctions against the prison -- 10 on Jumu'ah and four on beards -- issued earlier by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton in Sacramento.

 The implications are much broader, however, because the 9th Circuit's interpretation of any federal law is binding throughout California and eight other Western states unless and until it's reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

 And, as a practical matter, said Susan D. Christian, the inmates' lawyer, "I would think it wouldn't require another lawsuit to apply it to all religions and all institutions."

 The case had its origins in several suits filed by individual inmates, representing themselves. The court appointed Christian to represent them in what became a class-action lawsuit, Mayweathers vs. Newland, that won the backing of the U.S. Department of Justice.

 Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, had no estimate of the overall Muslim population behind bars but said Islam is "one of the fastest-growing religions in California prisons."

 The state's attorneys were reviewing the opinion before deciding what to do next. They could petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a review, seek further review in the 9th Circuit or let the case go back to Karlton for a ruling on a permanent injunction.

 The prisons had justified a general ban on beards as essential to speedy identification. The argument was rejected without discussion in the 9th Circuit's opinion.

 Karlton ruled last winter that the prisons could achieve their legitimate goals by imposing less restrictive measures, such as limits on beard length.

 In the 9th Circuit, the state argued mainly that Congress exceeded its constitutional powers in passing the 2000 law.

 The 9th Circuit said the statute was sound under a 15-year-old U.S. Supreme Court precedent that spells out the circumstances under which Congress may withhold its funds from states that refuse to comply with its mandates.

 It's anybody's guess, though, whether the Supreme Court would adhere to the precedent today.

 Jesse Choper, a leading constitutional authority at the University of California, Berkeley, said the power of Congress to put conditions on its funding was "in all likelihood, the next front in the court's federalism revolution."