NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Religious Freedom Provides Veil for Hate Speech

January 15, 2004

Racial and religious hate speech is criminal in much of the world, but in the United States most speech enjoys First Amendment protections that are unavailable in the rest of the world, say observers. Religious freedom is also protected by the Constitution -- including the freedom to practice religion in prison -- and federal legislation was passed to ensure prisoners' rights.

But this has led to prisons becoming a ground for spreading extreme religious doctrines, according to Adam Liptak of the New York Times. For example:

  • Two failed terror attacks following September 11, 2001, involved people who were drawn to Islam while serving time in prison.
  • The Wall Street Journal reported a year ago that the Muslim cleric who coordinated New York's Islamic prison program for two decades recruited prisoners to a radical form of Islam and expressed admiration for the September 11 hijackers.

It would seem that limiting the spread of any religious doctrine that incites violence would be easier in prison. But a law enacted in 2000, presents prison officials with additional and unintended challenges. The law requires courts to review restrictions on religious practices in prison with heightened skepticism.

Federal appeals courts have differed about whether the law is constitutional. Prison officials argued to the only appeal court that has struck down the law that it allows inmate gangs to claim religious status in order to insulate their illicit activities from scrutiny.

Source: Adam Liptak, "Hate Speech and the American Way," New York Times, January 11, 2004.


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