Update: Pagans in Prison

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 23, 2011 — 6 Comments

As I mentioned on Tuesday of this week, PNC-Minnesota is running a special series on Pagans in prison. In addition to the interview with chaplain and Pagan rights activist Patrick McCollum, they have now posted two new interviews, one with Wisconsin religious volunteer Wade Mueller, and one with George A Edgar, Wiccan Minister and Pagan Prison Religious Volunteer at three Minnesota Correctional Institutions.

The important decisions about what inmates can have or do in their religious practice are made by those that are least qualified and educated to do so […]  it is the guards and the chaplains who decide what goes on. When you get to the upper echelon, the Warden or the Department of Corrections, and they get excited, you tend to see draconian measures because they don’t want any headaches. They see things very practically, and the Pagans represent a slippery slope. They had to cave into the Native Americans. They allow outdoor ritual, the sweat lodge, the use of tobacco, now what if the Druids want that too? If you can get three or four guys together and a religious volunteer, you become a legitimate religious group. All of a sudden you may have thirty outdoor rituals a week, with special guards and space requirements. Where is the funding, where are the extra staff? They just don’t want the headache. They want to stop this as best they can.”

More interviews are on the way, do check out this important series.

While I’m on the topic of Pagans in prison, there’s been an important ruling that could affect many inmates litigating for their religious rights. Religion News Service reports that a recent Supreme Court ruling eliminates the possibility of obtaining monetary damages for cases brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

“Prison inmates who are deprived of their religious rights cannot sue states for monetary damages, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday (April 20). […] Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, ruled that under RLUIPA prisoners can sue to change prison polices but not seek financial redress. Texas does not forgo its “sovereign immunity” when it accepts federal money to run its prisons, Thomas said.”

This represents a major sea change in religious rights cases, making it nearly impossible to put any pressure on prisons to truly reform (they can simply change the policy when it becomes inconvenient, with no risk of harming their budget). SCOTUSblog commentator Lyle Denniston notes the decision may go even farther than the issue of monetary damages to the issue of whether the federal government can compel states to respect the religious rights of prisoners.

“In addition, the opinion, somewhat threateningly, implied that there may be a significant question about Congress’s authority under its spending or commerce-regulation power even to pass the kind of law at issue in this case: a law seeking to compel states to respect the religious rights of persons in prisons and other state-run institutions. The Court said in a footnote that no one had raised those questions, so the decision did not pass upon them.  That kind of comment, though, could be seen by at least some states as a hint that they might attempt such a challenge to that federal obligation.”

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, who filed a joint amicus brief alongside the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, American Jewish Committee, and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation, said they were “disappointed in the majority’s pinched view of what was a clear congressional intent to provide prisoners broad protection for religious liberty and a robust remedy for its violation, including monetary damages.” The brief notes that “non-monetary remedies are woefully inadequate,” and the ramifications of this ruling could have a chilling effect on the rights of prisoners to freely practice their religion(s).

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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