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SCOTUS Won’t Hear Jail Jewish Bible-Study Case

(CN) - The Supreme Court on Monday declined to revive a Jewish inmate's pro se claim that North Carolina prison officials discriminated by not letting inmates pray and study the Torah together.

Though the court did not explain the decision not to take up the case, as is its custom, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote in dissent that the inmate, Israel Ben-Levi, had raised important questions about religious freedom. Alito said he would have granted the petition for certiorari and "summarily reverse the judgment."

Ben-Levi, an inmate at the Hoke Correctional Institution in Raeford, N.C., sued prison chaplain Betty Brown in the Eastern District of North Carolina on Oct. 4, 2012.

He claimed he had expressed a desire to form a Jewish prayer and study group with other inmates, but that his request was denied by Brown, in violation of his rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act.

Specifically, he claimed that Brown, as director of chaplaincy services at the prison, had denied to authorize him access to a quiet room to use for Jewish Bible study, despite inmates practicing other faiths being afforded similar privileges.

Brown responded by explaining that the prison had no volunteer Rabbi's, and that without one to supervise the study group, no formal authorization could be given. Prison rules expressly prohibit any inmate from exercising religious authority over another.

On Dec. 18, 2014, U.S. District Judge James Fox granted Brown's request for summary judgment.

Ben-Levi appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which affirmed Fox's ruling, finding "no reversible error."

Ben-Levi filed his petition for a writ of certiorari on June 11, 2015.

In his dissent, Alito was particularly troubled by the fact the prison appears to "intentionally treat different religions differently based on its perception of the importance of their various tenets."

As a result, he believes the prison's justifications for denying Ben-Levi his study group rang hollow.

The justifications, he said, "seem to apply equally to inmates of other religions, who were nevertheless allowed to meet in groups of fewer than 10 without an outside leader."

Brown, he said, gave the court no reason to believe that Jewish prisoners "Are more inclined than prisoners of other religions to 'use faith practice to mask their gang activity' ... Nor is there any indication that a Jewish study group is more likely than a Christian or Muslim group to impede order, compromise inmate relationships, or absorb personnel resources.

Alito acknowledged that the court's refusal to grant review of the case did not necessarily mean his fellow justices agreed with the lower and appellate court decisions.

That said, he opined, "the court's indifference to this discriminatory infringement of religious liberty is disappointing."

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