The Yale Law Journal

April 2020

Sincerity, Religious Questions, and the Accommodation Claims of Muslim Prisoners

Constitutional LawFirst AmendmentPrisons and Jails

abstract. Two doctrines—the religious-question doctrine and the sincerity doctrine—control the evaluation of religious-accommodation claims. According to these doctrines, courts evaluating religious-accommodation claims must not consider the content of religious beliefs, but may consider the sincerity with which those beliefs are held. These two doctrines are well established in American constitutional history, dating back at least seventy-five years to United States v. Ballard. Yet, by using the example of Muslim prisoner accommodation claims, this Note shows that the doctrinal account is, in practice, a fiction. In the adjudication of Muslim prisoner claims, courts frequently rely on what Islam has to say, usually focusing on inconsistencies between prisoners’ claims and Islamic doctrine as a method to summarily deny those claims. Thus, the line between sincerity and religious questions—one enthusiastically conserved by higher courts—remains relatively unpoliced by the district courts.

This Note articulates a new way of understanding the porousness of the boundary between sincerity and religious questions. By conceiving of the key inquiry as having less to do with a claimant’s religious convictions and more to do with the plausibility of the claim, this Note provides a new doctrinal account that would justify the seemingly erroneous behavior of courts across the country.

author. Yale Law School, J.D. 2019; Harvard Divinity School, M.T.S. 2016; University of Southern California, B.A. 2014. I am deeply grateful to Khaled A. Beydoun, Nathan S. Chapman, Amy Chua, Paul Gewirtz, Michael A. Helfand, and Jed Rubenfeld for their comments on earlier drafts of this Note. The editors at the Yale Law Journal, especially Zohaib Chida, Briana M. Clark, and Ela A. Leshem, provided meticulous and invaluable feedback. All shortcomings are my own. And God knows best.