O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz
Decided on June 9, 1987; 482 US 342


A. Issues Discussed:  Criminal Justice (prison), 1st Amendment - religion

B. Legal Question Presented:

What is the appropriate standard of review for prison regulations claimed to inhibit the exercise of constitutional rights?


A. Background:

Respondents, members of the Islamic faith, were prisoners in New Jersey's Leesburg State Prison. They challenged policies adopted by prison officials which resulted in their inability to attend Jumu'ah, a weekly Muslim congregational service regularly held in the main prison building and in a separate facility known as “the Farm.” Jumu'ah is commanded by the Koran and must be held every Friday after the sun reaches its zenith and before the Asr, or afternoon prayer. 

The New Jersey Federal District Court concluded that no constitutional violation had occurred, but the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated and remanded the judgement, ruling that the prison policies could be sustained only if the State showed that the challenged regulations were intended to and did serve the goal of security, and that no reasonable method existed by which prisoners' religious rights could be accommodated without creating bona fide security problems.

The United States Supreme Court granted Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to review the case.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
James Katz argued the cause and filed a brief for Respondents.
Laurie M. Hodian, Deputy Attorney General of New Jersey, argued the cause for petitioners. With her on the briefs were W. Cary Edwards, Attorney General, and James J. Ciancia, Assistant Attorney General.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable 
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union, et al., by Eric Neisser, Alvin J. Bronstein, David B. Goldstein, Edward I. Koren, and Elizabeth Alexander; for the American Jewish Congress, et al., by Marc D. Stern and Amy Adelson; for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, et al., by Steven Frederick McDowell; for the Christian Legal Society, et al., by Michael J. Woodruff and Samuel E. Ericsson; for the Prisoners' Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society of the city of New York, et al., by Philip L. Weinstein, David A. Lewis, and Stephen M. Latimer; for Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, et al., by Ellen J. Winner, James G. Abourezk, and Albert P. Mokhiber; and for Len Marek, et al., by Steven C. Moore and Walter R. Echo-Hawk.
Roger Clegg argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Fried, Assistant Attorney General Weld, and Deputy Solicitor General Bryson.

A brief of amici curiae urging reversal was filed for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, et al., by LeRoy S. Zimmerman, Attorney General of Pennsylvania; Amy Zapp, Deputy Attorney General of Pennsylvania; John G. Knorr III, Senior Deputy Attorney General of Pennsylvania; Andrew S. Gordon, Chief Deputy Attorney General of Pennsylvania; Charles A. Graddick, Attorney General of Alabama; Ronald W. Lorensen, Acting Attorney General of Alaska; Robert K. Corbin, Attorney General of Arizona; Steven Clark, Attorney General of Arkansas; John K. Van de Kamp, Attorney General of California; Duane Woodard, Attorney General of Colorado; Charles M. Oberly III, Attorney General of Delaware; Jim Smith, Attorney General of Florida; Corinne K. A. Watanabe, Attorney General of Hawaii; James T. Jones, Attorney General of Idaho; Linley E. Pearson, Attorney General of Indiana; Robert P. Stephan, Attorney General of Kansas; William J. Guste, Jr., Attorney General of Louisiana; Stephen H. Sachs, Attorney General of Maryland; Francis X. Bellotti, Attorney General of Massachusetts; Frank J. Kelley, Attorney General of Michigan; Hubert H. Humphrey III, Attorney General of Minnesota; Lloyd Pittman, Attorney General of Mississippi; William L. Webster, Attorney General of Missouri; Robert M. Spire, Attorney General of Nebraska; Brian McKay, Attorney General of Nevada; Lacy H. Thornburg, Attorney General of North Carolina; Nicholas J. Spaeth, Attorney General of North Dakota; Anthony J. Celebrezze Jr., Attorney General of Ohio; Dave Frohnmayer, Attorney General of Oregon; T. Travis Medlock, Attorney General of South Carolina; Mark V. Meierhenryl, Attorney General of South Dakota; W.J. Michael Cody, Attorney General of Tennessee; Mary Sue Terry, Attorney General of Virginia; Kenneth O. Eikenberry, Attorney General of Washington; A.G. McClintock, Attorney General of Wyoming; and James R. Murphy, Acting Corporate Counsel of the District of Columbia.

"Inmates clearly retain protections afforded by the First Amendment, including its directive that 'no law shall prohibit the free exercise of religion.' However, 'lawful incarceration brings about the necessary withdrawal or limitation of many privileges and rights, a retraction justified by the considerations underlying the [US] penal system. When a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests...

The Court held the prison regulations did not violate respondents' rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  The Court of Appeals erred in placing a separate burden on prison officials to prove that no reasonable method existed by which inmates' religious rights could be accommodated without creating bona fide security problems...  

Moreover, prison officials acted reasonably by precluding Islamic inmates from attending weekly Friday religious service. 'The prison regulations advanced the legitimate government interests of maintaining institutional order and security and implementing rehabilitative policies.  Nor were respondent’s deprived of all forms of religious exercise, but instead freely observed a number of their religious obligations.'

Lastly, the Supreme Court would 'not substitute its judgment on difficult and sensitive matters of institutional administration for determinations of those charged with the formidable task of running [a] prison.'"
Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con

  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote the majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O’Connor, S. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined Brennan’s dissent)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined Brennan’s dissent)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined Brennan’s dissent)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeals decision in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.