David L. Hudson Jr. at the First Amendment Center reports on a recent legal case in which an imprisoned adherent to Asatru (Nordic Paganism) won the right to wear a Thor’s Hammer pendant. Even more remarkable is the fact that the prisoner, Forest Fisher, represented himself in court.
“Inmate Forest Fisher sued the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) and various prison officials after they denied his request for Thor’s Hammer, while allowing inmates of other religions to wear various medallions. Fisher, who proceeded pro se – without an attorney – contended that these actions violated his First Amendment to freely exercise his religious faith, the federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and his equal-protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The Virginia Department of Corrections’ case wasn’t helped by the fact that prison officials denied Fisher his legal due process in his applications to wear a Thor’s Hammer.
“However, in his May 25 ruling in Fisher v. Virginia, U.S. Magistrate Michael F. Urbanski took issue with the prison officials’ failure to follow their own procedure in submitting Fisher’s request to the Faith Review Committee … Urbanski stressed that the defendants’ arguments “flatly ignore the fact that Fisher submitted the appropriate paperwork to the appropriate institutional employee for FRC consideration, but that the employee failed to forward his request as required under the VDOC FRC procedures.” Because of this, Urbanski ruled that there were enough disputed factual issues to merit a trial on Fisher’s constitutional claims. He also denied the defendants’ request for qualified immunity, a doctrine that enables government officials to avoid liability for constitutional or statutory violations if they do not violate clearly established rights.”
It is cases like this (and the Veteran Pentacle Quest) that remind you that an unwilling bureaucracy can be just as efficient at denying constitutionally protected rights to its citizens as a tyrannical government. It is especially easy for such things to happen in the American prison system where punishment is emphasized (and often encouraged) over rehabilitation, and the public empathy runs low. If this one Asatruar hadn’t stepped up, the quiet banning of a legitimate religious symbol could have continued for years. If religious freedom doesn’t apply to all of us equally, then we don’t have religious freedom.