Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Category: prisoner rights Page 1 of 2

Must be nice…

I’ve got to say, as someone who practices, and advocates for the rights of, an ethno-tribal religion, I am very jealous of the status of Amerindians when it comes to their group identity and religious practices. After all, they have the full weight of the United States federal government on their side. Take, for example, the case of Sioleski v. Capra et al.

This (I almost hesitate to use the word) “person” was convicted of throwing acid in his step-daughter’s face because he thought her mother had damaged his car, and to this day she fears that he will come after her if he makes parole. He recently sued because Sing-Sing prison wouldn’t let him have a “Cherokee mullet” (is that even a thing?).

But last week the court dismissed the case, and I’m not a lawyer, but it would seem to be because he hadn’t appealed the prison’s decision that he wasn’t Cherokee, and without exhausting all his options, he couldn’t sue:

“plaintiff has not appealed to CORC any grievance regarding defendant Capra’s failure to enroll plaintiff in the Native American religious community while incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility…. In fact, the CORC appeal list indicates that plaintiff has not appealed to CORC any grievances filed at Sing Sing.”

The facts of the case and his suit notwithstanding, what I find fascinating about this whole affair is the fact that the state of New York is apparently able to decide who can, and cannot, practice Amerindian religion, based on tribal membership. In the specific case of the Cherokee, they apparently go entirely based on genealogical records rather than blood tests, but membership in the tribe, and access to Cherokee religious rites, is still based on ancestry, and enforced by the federal government, at least in prison.

Which brings up an interesting question. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if someone of obvious non-European ancestry requested to be allowed to participate in Asatru rituals. Asatru is recognized as a real faith by the federal bureau of prisons, and thus they control who can, and cannot, practice it while in Federal custody. They’re apparently quite assiduous about making sure that Amerindian religions are only practiced by people of Amerindian descent.

Of course, being in prison isn’t a good thing by any stretch. But even felons have the government on their side when it comes to certain tribal religions. Must be nice to have the boundaries of one’s ethno-tribal religion protected by force of law, even within a Federal penitentiary.

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(A tip o’ the horned helmet to Religion Clause)

Asatru Prisoner News: Bryant v. Woodhall

Over in Tennessee, we hear about a case involving a number of Asatruar who claim they are being denied the right to worship:

Plaintiffs assert that they are followers of the Odinic or Asatru faith… seeking accommodations that would allow him and other Odinist inmates to worship as they claim their faith requires. … The requested accommodations included two hours of group worship per week; the purchase or donation of an altar cloth, mead horn cup, ritual Thor’s hammer, rune staff, oak blessing bowl, oath ring, and rune set for group worship; recognition by TDOC as a legitimate religion; the purchase or donation of a rune set, religious amulet, mead horn cup and altar cloth for personal in-cell worship; and the observance of a religious feast day. …

The TDOC Religious Activities Committee denied Former Plaintiff McDougal’s request on the grounds that each requested accommodation posed a threat to institutional safety and security. 

Now, I can certainly see that having an oaken hammer or staff could be construed as being a potential security threat. The former is, after all, literally based on the design of a weapon. But “two hours of group worship per week” hardly seems like such a threat in and of itself; it certainly sounds like the prison is simply reacting to Asatru/Odinism directly, and wanting to squash it simply because some people use the term as a screen for gang-related activity. And some groups absolutely do use a Thor’s hammer to sanctify space, so it’s certainly a legitimate request in and of itself.

Fortunately, the court agreed, and denied the defendant’s motion for a summary judgement. The Asatruars’ case can proceed. Updates will be posted here as they become available.

Asatru Prisoner News: Michaels v. West

Via Religion Clause:

In Michaels v. West, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1826 (ND WV, Jan. 7, 2016), a West Virginia federal district court adopted a magistrate’s recommendation (2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 174184, Nov. 25, 2015) and dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies an inmate’s complaint that he was denied the vegetarian diet required by his Asatru religious beliefs.

Ummm… vegetarian diet required by Asatru? Gotta say that seems like a stretch. Pork or horse meat required? That I could believe.

Asatru Prisoner News: Sessing v. Beard (Update)

Back in January 2014, I reported on the case of Sessing v. Beard. It seems there has been some activity on the case. On March 30, a judge dismissed the third amended appeal with prejudice. This time the specific charge was that the plaintiff wasn’t given permission to construct an Asatru-only sacred space in the prison; apparently he wanted one that wasn’t shared with other faiths. Apparently, there’s already a Pagan outdoor worship area, and “the pagan grounds are available for use by “other religious groups,” including Asatruar/Odinists.”

Odinist prisoner news: Freeman v. Budnick et al

Out of Arkansas comes the case of Freeman v. Budnick et al, wherein the plaintiff alleged that “while in punitive isolation he was denied various items needed to practice his religion such as a Thor’s hammer, a set of runes and rune cloth, an Odinist text, an altar and altar cloth and a wooden statue.” (Details from Religion Clause, as I was unable to find court documents detailing the case that aren’t behind a paywall.)

The case was dismissed without prejudice.

Odinist Prisoner News: Planker v. Christie

From New Jersey comes Planker v. Christie, that was dismissed without prejudice on January 20, 2015. Amongst (many, many) other complaints, the plaintiff alleged that his rights as an “Organic Odian” (which, I must admit, is something I’ve never heard of before) were violated. Specifically, he was denied materials such as a Thor’s Hammer, runes, candles, sea salt, and mushrooms (?), and was denied access to Odinist services due to scheduling issues.

But most disturbing are the alleged comments of the (Muslim) prison chaplain to the effect that the plaintiff should convert to Islam if he wanted full access to his religious rights.

Interestingly, the opinion cites DeHart v. Horn in stating that:

“[t]he mere assertion of a religious belief does not automatically trigger First Amendment protections, however. To the contrary, only those beliefs which are both sincerely held and religious in nature are entitled to constitutional protection.”

On the same day that opinion was published, the US Supreme Court published Holt v. Hobbs, which in many ways turned the court’s interpretation of RLUIPA (the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) on its head. As Howard Friedman of the award-winning Religion Clause blog put it:

“Those who follow Religion Clause’s weekly summary of prisoner free exercise cases know that inmates professing a wide variety of religious beliefs seek religious accommodations relating to grooming, clothing, possession of religious items, worship space, congregate religious services, religious dietary restrictions, and more.  The Supreme Court has now reaffirmed the conclusion of most courts that an inmate may invoke RLUIPA to require accommodation of a totally idiosyncratic belief– so long as it is sincerely held. Religious visions shared by no one else apparently still qualify.”

That could indeed have an implication for Planker v. Christie, not to mention many other religious-based lawsuits that rely on RLUIPA as their basis.

Asatru Prisoner News: Webb v. California Dept. of Corrections

From California comes Webb v. California Dept. of Corrections that was recently (December 23rd) dismissed with leave to amend. The plaintiff, one Jack Webb, alleged that his rights were infringed in numerous ways and on various occasions, including (but not limited to) being denied time and facilities to worship (indoors and outdoors), books relating to Asatru and/or Odinism, herbs and sacred oils, and that one of the guards, while observing a blot being held in the prison yard, called the ritual nonsense and said he was going to end such practices.

The complaint also says the defendant had a hammer taken away from him, and the judge sided with the prison, saying such a thing was a safety violation, but it’s not at all clear whether the hammer in question was a full-sized ritual hammer (which in fairness probably would be unsafe to allow in a prison) or a hammer pendant, which would seem to be okay.

Due to various flaws with the complaint, it was dismissed, but the plaintiff has the right to file an amended complaint.

Asatru Prisoner News: Pickering v. California Dept. of Corrections

From California comes Pickering v. California Dept. of Corrections that was recently (Dec 18) dismissed. The plaintiff had said that his religious rights were denied regarding a wide variety of issues from access to the prison chapel to access to religious books to oils to access to outdoor worship space, dating back to 2008.
The judge said that while the specific instances did indeed happen, they did not constitute a valid complaint according to the law, but the defendant could resubmit his case at a later date, provided it was amended appropriately.

Asatru Prisoner News: Leishman v. Patterson et al

Out of Utah comes the case of Leishman v. Patterson et al, where an Asatru prisoner claimed he was denied rune tokens made of wood (he was offered cards or runes made out of some synthetic material, probably plastic) and was not allowed to perform blót for more than ten years, apparently because blót is a communal ritual and prison rules require a non-inmate to “monitor or lead” such a ceremony, and no volunteers are available (the prison apparently is trying to get a Wiccan in to do the job, but one wonders how getting a Mormon in to do a Catholic mass would fly).

The use of wooden runes was disallowed because small pieces of wood can be used to jam locks and the like (but apparently small pieces of plastic cannot do that?), even though Amerindian prisoners are allowed to do so thanks to a special exception carved out in a different case. The prison officials also enjoy qualified immunity.

Case (against the prison officials) dismissed.

Mr. Leishman is in a maximum security prison after pleading guilty to the 1997 murder of two rival gang members in West Valley City, UT.

Odinist Prisoner News: Smith v. Governor for the State of Alabama

Out of Alabama (obviously) comes a ruling in the case of Smith v. Governor for the State of Alabama. The plaintiff, Tony Lee Smith, was apparently denied permission for a dedicated Odinist worship space (he could use the regular open worship space) and a fire pit (he could use a small candle), and refused to place him in a faith-based “honor dorm”. The prison stated concerns about Odinism’s racist connections. He further claimed that artwork was impounded and destroyed, and that he was retaliated against because he practiced a non-Christian religion.

After wending its way through a couple of lower courts, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals finally denied his appeal, essentially stating that he had no expectation of privacy in his cell, and that he was not treated in a discriminatory fashion. Earlier dismissal of the charges is upheld.

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