From the pacifist beliefs of the Quakers to Christian beliefs that undergirded the Civil Rights Movement, religion and spirituality were inextricably linked to the advancement of positive peace in the 20th Century United States (Grewal, 1). Positive peace seeks to achieve “the integration of human society” by creating a just society that acknowledges the human dignity of its members. One of the ways that the ideals of positive peace is accomplished is through the protection of human rights granted to a country’s citizens by the law. In the United States, the Constitution guarantees the right to practice one’s own religion. However, this right was not always extended to individuals housed in the United States’ prison system, particularly those who did not practice in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The religious freedoms of prisoners in the United States were secured by the Supreme Court in the 1972 Cruz V. Betodecision, which declared that preventing prisoners from freely practicing their religion was a violation of both the 1st and 14th Amendments. The protection of the religious freedoms of the marginalized that was achieved by this case contributes to the establishment of a just and equitable society, and thus the promotion of positive peace.
Cruz V. Beto was brought forth by Fred Cruz, a Mexican-American born in 1940 in San Antonio, Texas. As a young growing up in the 1960s in what was “the poorest city in the nation” at the time, Cruz joined a neighborhood gang and quickly became involved in criminal activity (Chase, 840). In 1961, at the age of twenty-one years old, Cruz was charged with two counts of aggravated robbery, and sentenced to fifty years in the Texas Department of Corrections (Chase, 840).
The Texas prison system of the 1960s was famous for its mistreatment of minority prisoners and its reinforcement of a racial hierarchy that placed whites at the top (Campbell, 638). Sociologist Michael Campbell writes, “Texas prisons were relatively insulated from legislative oversight, embodied traditional notions of racial hierarchy, operated at minimal cost, and relied on brutality to ensure strict discipline and obedience” (639). Texas prison guards were wary of anything outside the white, Christian norm, and had few qualms about punishing inmates (especially minority inmates) to maintain the status quo.
Cruz experienced this discrimination firsthand, due to his status as a member of a religious minority. While incarcerated, Cruz began ponder existential matters reading extensively on philosophy and Eastern religion. In 1966, Cruz converted to Buddhism (Chase, 845). Cruz’s right to freely exercise his Buddhist faith was repeatedly violated by prison staff, who singled him out for punishment on the basis of his belief.
In his first year of imprisonment, Cruz spent hour after hour in the Harlem Prison Farm’s law library. It was through his research here that Cruz learned of Cooper v. Pate, a case in which the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners could appeal to federal courts in the event that “they could demonstrate that the First Amendment’s protection of free expression, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ due process clause, and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment were being violated by the conditions of their captivity” (Chase, 845).
The Cooper v. Pate decision would inspire Cruz to present his own case to the federal courts on the grounds of violations of his freedom of religion. In his original complaint, Cruz claimed that correctional officers prevented his free exercise of religion, asserting that “he was not allowed to use the prison chapel”, “was prohibited from writing to his religious advisor”, and “was placed in solitary confinement for sharing his religious material with other prisoners” (“Cruz v. Beto”).
The Fifth Circuit Court of appeals refused to intervene on Cruz’s behalf, claiming that the question of whether or not prisoners could freely exercise their religious rights should be left “to the sound discretion of prison administration” (“Cruz v. Beto”). The case was eventually presented to the Supreme Court, where Cruz’s lawyers described the particular discrimination inflicted upon Cruz on the basis of his beliefs:
Because inmates of the Buddhist faith are being denied the right to participate in the religious program made available for Protestant, Jewish and Roman Catholic faiths by the Defendants, Plaintiff and the members of the class he represents are being subjected to an arbitrary and unreasonable exclusion without any lawful justification which invidiously discriminates against them in violation of their constitutional right of religious freedom and denies them equal protection of the laws (“Cruz v. Beto”).
The court upheld Cruz’s complaint, declaring that the Texas Department of Corrections had violated Cruz’s 1st and 14th Amendment rights. Of the protection of prisoner’s right to the free exercise of religion, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote, “Federal courts sit not to supervise prisons, but to enforce the constitutional rights of all "persons," including prisoners” (“Cruz v. Beto”). The Supreme Court’s decision in Cruz V. Beto affirmed the constitutional rights of prisoners in the United States and cemented a prisoner’s right to the free exercise of religion.
The Cruz v. Beto case was an important moment in the advancement of positive peace. It ensured equal protection under the law of a marginalized group and rejected the notion of Judeo-Christian supremacy in favor of religious tolerance. By affirming the rights, and thus the humanity, of prisoners, Cruz v. Beto was a step toward “the integration of human society” (Grewal, 1).
"Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319 (1972)." Justia Law. Accessed March 15, 2018.
Campbell, Michael C. "Politics, Prisons, and Law Enforcement: An Examination of the
Emergence of “Law and Order” Politics in Texas." Law & Society Review 45, no. 3 (2011): 631-65. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5893.2011.00446.x.
Chase, Robert T. "Cell Taught, Self Taught." Journal of Urban History 41, no. 5 (2015): 836-61.
Grewal, Baljit S. “Johan Galtung: Positive and Negative Peace.” University of Auckland. 2003