May a State be Sued under RLUIPA for Money Damages?

What does “appropriate relief” mean under RLUIPA?  Who knew two little words could matter so much?

Under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a covered plaintiffs whose religious freedoms have been violated may sue the state for “appropriate relief.” Does this mean that the prisoner may obtain money damages?

Ordinarily, that would be an easy question. Civil rights statutes are to be construed broadly to effectuate their remedial purpose. “Appropriate relief” is broadly-worded language. Thus, “appropriate relief” usually includes compensatory damages, as well as injunctive relief.

Under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Eleventh Amendment, states have sovereign immunity from suit. A state may not be sued for money damages unless Congress has abrogated the state’s immunity; or if the state has waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity.

In order to receive federal funding, a state must consent to RLUIPA. In other words, any state desiring federal funding for its prisons must agree to allow itself to be sued under RLUIPA.

Waiver of Eleventh Amendment immunity, however, must be clear and unequivocal. Did the states who agreed to be sued for “appropriate relief” thus agree to be sued for money damages?

There’s a split of authority on the issue. Today the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals joined several circuits, holding that “appropriate relief” does not encompass monetary damages. Van Wyhe v. Reisch, Case No. 08-1409 (8th Cir. Sept 10, 2009).  The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded otherwise, in Smith v. Allen, 502 F.3d 1255 (11th Cir. 2007).

The Eleventh Circuit has the stronger argument, in light of RLUIPA's "Judicial relief" section.  42 U.S.C. § 2000cc–2(a) provides: "(a) Cause of action A person may assert a violation of this chapter as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government."  While "appropriate relief" is not defined, it is also not narrowed.  Consider what happens in a different subsection:  (f) Authority of United States to enforce this chapter. The United States may bring an action for injunctive or declaratory relief to enforce compliance with this chapter []."  Id. at 2000cc–2(f).

If Congress intended "appropriate relief" to be limited to prospective relief, why then did it specifically limit the United States' remedies to injunctive and declaratory relief?  Wouldn't Congress had said, "The United Stats may bring an action for appropriate relief to enforce compliance with this chapter."

In RLUIPA, Congress limited the relief available to the United States in an action against a state.  Congress did not limit the relief available to private litigants.  Therefore, states did waive Eleventh Amendment immunity by consenting to RLUIPA.