North Carolina prisoner Israel Ben-Levi wanted an opportunity to worship with other Jewish inmates, and when he didn't get it, he hand-wrote a plea to the Supreme Court.
The 68-year-old convicted rapist failed Monday, when the court denied his petition. But in an illuminating twist, Ben-Levi’s painstakingly scrawled petition won over one of the court’s staunchest law-and-order conservatives who’s become a notable supporter of devout inmates.
“The court’s indifference to this discriminatory infringement of religious liberty is disappointing,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote.
Alone among the high court’s eight remaining justices, Alito said he would have granted Ben-Levi’s petition in order to reverse a lower appellate court that sided with the state. Ben-Levi, Alito reasoned, had made a solid First Amendment claim against North Carolina prison officials.
The state has no apparent reason for discriminating against Jewish inmates in this way.
Justice Samuel Alito, Jr.
Alito’s dissent was unusual in several respects, starting with its very existence. The high court rejects upwards of 8,000 petitions each year, many of them filed by prisoners, and only rarely does a justice bother filing a written dissent.
On Monday, for instance, the court denied more than 550 petitions, routinely rejecting them without oral argument because a minimum of four justices hadn’t agreed to hear the case. Ben-Levi’s was the only one to draw a written dissent.
Alito’s 11-page dissent, moreover, was longer and more fully reasoned than many, suggesting that Ben-Levi had struck a chord. It is, in fact, built on a 2015 Supreme Court decision written by Alito upholding an Arkansas prison inmate’s right to grow a beard for religious reasons.
“Many prisoners, Ben-Levi included, consider it important to congregate with other practitioners of their faith for prayer and discussion,” Alito wrote in the dissent released Monday. “Preventing them from doing so burdens their religious exercise, even if they are allowed to study and pray alone in a cell.”
Born Danny Lee Loren, the inmate now known as Israel Ben-Levi changed his name in 2004. He is serving a life sentence, following a 1980 conviction for first-degree rape in rural Transylvania County in western North Carolina. He is currently being held in Greene Correctional Institution, a minimum-security facility about 80 miles east of Raleigh.
550 number of cases Supreme Court declined to head Monday
In 2012, Ben-Levi was at Hoke Correctional Institution, about 90 miles southwest of Raleigh and 110 miles east of Charlotte. He requested permission to meet in a quiet room to pray and study the Torah with two other inmates.
His request was denied.
1 number of rejected cases that drew a written dissent
“It seems that all other faith groups are allowed to meet, yet the Jewish inmates are discriminated against,” Ben-Levi wrote in his Supreme Court petition. “I feel the religious rights of the Jewish inmates are being violated on a regular basis.”
Prison officials said there wasn’t a quorum of 10 adult Jews to establish what’s called a minyan, nor was there an outside rabbi available to oversee the inmates’ study.
“Concerns have been raised in the past of inmates engaging in gang activity under guise of being members of the same religious faith group engaged in religious practices,” North Carolina Assistant Attorney General Kimberly D. Grande advised the Supreme Court.
North Carolina officials also noted that they have revised prison policies to allow approved inmates to lead religious study groups when outside clergy is not available. Alito said that wasn’t enough to cure the problem.