A June 1 article on religious rights for prisoners and mental patients incorrectly said that the hallucinogenic cactus peyote is smoked. Users chew it or brew it for drinking. (Published 6/2/2005)

The Supreme Court upheld a federal religious freedom law for prisoners and mental patients yesterday, ruling that Congress has the power to require that state institutions accommodate the reasonable religious needs of those under their control.

In a unanimous ruling, the court rejected Ohio's constitutional challenge to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), enacted by Congress in 2000. RLUIPA says that "no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution" that receives federal funds, unless the burden is absolutely necessary to meet a "compelling" government purpose.

Ohio argued that this amounts to unconstitutional official favoritism for religion, because it creates incentives for inmates in its prisons to profess a religious belief so that they may receive special food or other privileges unavailable to other inmates.

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court, said that Ohio's interpretation would sweep too broadly, prohibiting even such congressionally mandated religious accommodations as a law that permits Jewish members of the military to wear yarmulkes while on duty.

"[W]e find RLUIPA's institutionalized-persons provision compatible with the [Constitution] because it alleviates exceptional government-created burdens on private religious exercise," Ginsburg wrote.

But Ginsburg added that the states could challenge the law on a case-by-case basis. She used terms that suggested the court would be receptive to a fairly broad range of such challenges when prisons invoke safety and security concerns to deny religious accommodations.

"We do not read RLUIPA to elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution's need to maintain order and safety," she noted.

Yesterday's opinion marks a truce of sorts in a battle between Congress and the court that has been going on since 1990. In that year, the court ruled that Oregon could punish Native Americans for smoking peyote, even though they said it was part of a religious ritual. Religious observance is no exception to laws that apply generally, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court.

To undo that decision, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, saying that the states must prove they had no other option before imposing any "substantial burden" on religious practice. The court struck that law down in 1997, saying that it exceeded Congress's power to combat state discrimination.

RLUIPA, a more narrow statute that applied only to land-use rules and institutionalized people, was adopted in 2000.

Yesterday's case, Cutter v. Wilkinson, No. 03-9877, began with a complaint by inmates that the state was impeding their observance of rituals associated with Wicca, Satanism, Asatru and the Church of Jesus Christ Christian.