In April of 2011, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion in Sossamon v. Texas addressing whether the State of Texas had waived its sovereign immunity to private suits for money damages under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). While the case is primarily constitutional in nature, it did stem from a claim that a Texas inmate made against the State of Texas for allegedly violating his protections of religious exercise.
Specifically, the inmate was challenging two prison policies:
- a policy preventing inmates from attending religious services while on cell restriction for disciplinary infractions; and
- a policy barring use of the prison chapel for religious worship.
The court did not address the issue of how and to what extent the prisoner’s rights to religious exercise were violated. Instead, the Court addressed the issue of sovereign immunity and whether the State of Texas could even be sued in the first place.
The Petitioner argued that because the State had received federal funding it had waived it’s right for sovereign immunity and was liable for damages base on RLUIPA.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court concluded that in accepting federal funding, a State does not consent to waive their sovereign immunity to private suits for money damages under RLUIPA. The Court acknowledged that a State may choose to waive its immunity, but that consent must be “unequivocally expressed” in the relevant statute’s text. Clark v. Barnard, 109 U.S. 436. The Court also noted that a waiver “will be strictly construed, in terms of its scope, in favor of the sovereign.” Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Holderman, 465 U.S. 89.
The Court upheld the Fifth Circuits ruling that barred the Petitioner’s claims for monetary relief based on sovereign immunity.