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Sossamon v. Texas

April 20, 2011





Argued November 2, 2010

After this Court held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 was unconstitutional as applied to state and local governments because it exceeded Congress' power under §5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, see City of Boerne v. Flores, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Thomas

563 U. S. ____ (2011)

Opinion of the Court

This case presents the question whether the States, by accepting federal funds, consent to waive their sovereign immunity to suits for money damages under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 114 Stat. 803, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc et seq. We hold that they do not. Sovereign immunity therefore bars this suit for damages against the State of Texas.



RLUIPA is Congress' second attempt to accord heightened statutory protection to religious exercise in the wake of this Court's decision in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U. S. 872 (1990). Congress first enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 107 Stat. 1488, 42 U. S. C. §2000bb et seq., with which it intended to "restore the compelling interest test as set forth in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U. S. 398 (1963) and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U. S. 205 (1972) . . . in all cases where free exercise of religion is substantially burdened." §2000bb(b)(1). See generally Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal, 546 U. S. 418, 424 (2006). We held RFRA unconstitutional as applied to state and local governments because it exceeded Congress' power under §5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. See City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U. S. 507 (1997).

Congress responded by enacting RLUIPA pursuant to its Spending Clause and Commerce Clause authority. RLUIPA borrows important elements from RFRA-which continues to apply to the Federal Government-but RLUIPA is less sweeping in scope. See Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U. S. 709, 715 (2005). It targets two areas of state and local action: land-use regulation, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc (RLUIPA §2), and restrictions on the religious exercise of institutionalized persons, §2000cc--1 (RLUIPA §3).

Section 3 of RLUIPA provides that "[n]o government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise" of an institutionalized person unless, as in RFRA, the government demonstrates that the burden "is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest" and "is the least restrictive means of furthering" that interest. §2000cc--1(a); cf. §§2000bb--1(a), (b). As relevant here, §3 applies "in any case" in which "the substantial burden is imposed in a program or activity that receives Federal financial assistance."*fn1 §2000cc--1(b)(1).

RLUIPA also includes an express private cause of action that is taken from RFRA: "A person may assert a violation of [RLUIPA] as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government." §2000cc--2(a); cf. §2000bb--1(c). For purposes of this provision, "government" includes, inter alia, States, counties, municipalities, their instrumentalities and officers, and persons acting under color of state law. §2000cc--5(4)(A).


Petitioner Harvey Leroy Sossamon III is an inmate in the Robertson Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division. In 2006, Sossamon sued the State of Texas and various prison officials in their official capacities under RLUIPA's private cause of action, seeking injunctive and monetary relief. Sossamon alleged that two prison policies violated RLUIPA: (1) a policy preventing inmates from attending religious services while on cell restriction for disciplinary infractions; and (2) a policy barring use of the prison chapel for religious worship. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of respondents and held, as relevant here, that sovereign immunity barred Sossamon's claims for monetary relief.*fn2 See 713 F. Supp. 2d 657, 662--663 (WD Tex. 2007).

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. 560 F. 3d 316, 329 (2009). Acknowledging that Congress enacted RLUIPA pursuant to the Spending Clause, the court determined that Texas had not waived its sovereign immunity by accepting federal funds. The Court of Appeals strictly construed the text of RLUIPA's cause of action in favor of the State and concluded that the statutory phrase "appropriate relief against a government" did not "unambiguously notif[y]" Texas that its acceptance of funds was conditioned on a waiver of immunity from claims for money damages. Id., at 330--331. We granted certiorari to resolve a division of authority among the courts of appeals on this question.*fn3 560 U. S. ___ (2010).


"Dual sovereignty is a defining feature of our Nation's constitutional blueprint." Federal Maritime Comm'n v. South Carolina Ports Authority, 535 U. S. 743, 751 (2002). Upon ratification of the Constitution, the States entered the Union "with their sovereignty intact." Ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted).

Immunity from private suits has long been considered "central to sovereign dignity." Alden v. Maine, 527 U. S. 706, 715 (1999). As was widely understood at the time the Constitution was drafted:

"It is inherent in the nature of sovereignty not to be amenable to the suit of an individual without its consent. This is the general sense, and the general practice of mankind; and the exemption, as one of the attributes of sovereignty, is now enjoyed by the government of every State in the Union." The Federalist No. 81, p. 511 (Wright ed. 1961) (A. Hamilton).

Indeed, when this Court threatened state immunity from private suits early in our Nation's history, the people responded swiftly to reiterate that fundamental principle. See Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U. S. 1, 11 (1890) (discussing Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 Dall. 419 (1793), and the Eleventh Amendment).

Sovereign immunity principles enforce an important constitutional limitation on the power of the federal courts. See Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U. S. 89, 98 (1984). For over a century now, this Court has consistently made clear that "federal jurisdiction over suits against unconsenting States 'was not contemplated by the Constitution when establishing the judicial power of the United States.' " Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U. S. 44, 54 (1996) (quoting Hans, supra, at 15); see Seminole Tribe, supra, at 54--55, n. 7 (collecting cases). A State, however, may choose to waive its immunity in federal court at its pleasure. Clark v. Barnard, 108 U. S. 436, 447--448 (1883).

Accordingly, "our test for determining whether a State has waived its immunity from federal-court jurisdiction is a stringent one." College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Post-secondary Ed. Expense Bd., 527 U. S. 666, 675 (1999) (internal quotation marks omitted). A State's consent to suit must be "unequivocally expressed" in the text of the relevant statute. Pennhurst State School and Hospital, supra, at 99; see Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanlon, 473 U. S. 234, 238, n. 1, 239--240 (1985). Only by requiring this "clear declaration" by the State ...

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