Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000. The law targets two areas of state action: land-use regulation and restrictions on the religious exercise of institutionalized persons, including inmates.
The law also provides for lawsuits seeking "appropriate relief against a government" that violates the law.
Harvey Leroy Sossamon III, serving life in Texas for a 2001 murder, filed suit against the state under the federal law, seeking monetary damages and an order striking down a policy that barred the use of the prison chapel to inmates restricted to their cells for disciplinary reasons.
A federal judge and appeals court held that a state's sovereign immunity trumped Sossamon's claim for monetary damages, despite the terms of the federal law and despite a state's accepting federal money.
A majority of the U.S. Supreme Court agreed Wednesday. In an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the majority said the acceptance of federal money was not a waiver of liability under the federal law -- that states have to expressly waive their sovereign immunity -- and that "appropriate relief" did not include the concept of money damages.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by fellow liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, dissented.
"That monetary damages are 'appropriate relief' is, in my view, self-evident," Sotomayor wrote. "Under general remedies principles, the usual remedy for a violation of a legal right is damages."
Citing the words of the federal law, Sotomayor said the Supreme Court "majority severely undermines the 'broad protection of religious exercise' Congress intended the statute to provide."
Justice Elena Kagan, who served as U.S. solicitor general during the course of the case, took no part in its high court consideration or in the ruling.