Newark, NJ - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has settled with the New Jersey Department of Corrections on behalf of Patrick Pantusco, an inmate who was denied religious books and other items while in prison. In the settlement, the State agreed to permit Mr. Pantusco access to all requested items and paid damages.
"We all have a right to exercise our religion, even people in prison," said Ed Barocas, ACLU-NJ Legal Director. "The State does not have the right to pick and choose which religions should be practiced and which should not."
Mr. Pantusco, an inmate in East Jersey State Prison who practices Wicca, a recognized religion, filed suit in federal court in Newark after prison officials denied him his right to obtain Wiccan books and religious items. Persons of other religions were permitted to obtain similar books and items specific to their religious practice. The prison's denial of Mr. Pantusco's requests was based on the fact that the prison refused to recognize Wicca as a legitimate religion. The ACLU-NJ took over the case for Mr. Pantusco in June 2003.
"All Mr Pantusco wanted was to have the same rights as the Muslim and Christian inmates," said Steven Latimer of the Hackensack firm Loughin & Latimer, who served as the ACLU-NJ's cooperating attorney representing Mr. Pantusco. "He asked for no special privileges."
Among the claims against the State defendants was that they violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects religious rights of inmates by requiring that government entities demonstrate a compelling need in order to deny inmates their ability to religious exercise. The State moved to dismiss the RLUIPA claim, asserting that Congress did not have the authority to pass such a law. The judge denied the motion. In May of 2005, the United States Supreme Court in a similar case upheld the constitutionality of RLUIPA.
The lawsuit recently settled by the ACLU-NJ was captioned Pantusco v. Moore, et al.
The ACLU-NJ is currently also involved in a religious freedom case involving a student. The ACLU-NJ submitted a motion to appear as a friend-of-the-court on behalf of Olivia Turton, who was denied the right to sing the song "Awesome God" at an after-school talent show in which the choice of song or skit performed was left up to each student.