Odinist Inmate Claims Religious Freedom Violations

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SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – On the morning Feb. 10, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court heard arguments in the case of Dennis Walker v. Matthew Cates. Walker is an inmate at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. His claim, which was originally filed in 2011, is that prison administrators violated his religious rights by forcing him to have a “non-Aryan” cellmate.

As noted in the case text from a 2011 court document, Walker “is an Aryan Christian/Odinist, ethnically white without gang affiliation.” In 2008, he was assigned a “non-Aryan Muslim” cellmate. When he resisted, Walker was disciplined. After further complaints in 2009, the administration reclassified him to be celled with only his own race. But that action was later “rescinded” per the 2008 California Integrated House Program, which prohibits segregation.

As a result, Walker, together with prisoner Robert Glover, filed a complaint against the state. The court asked the men to file their complaints separately. They did, and in July 2011, Glover’s case was dismissed. However, according to one source, it is still hung up in the system somewhere. However, Walker continued on with new arguments being heard yesterday in a motion from the defendants to dismiss the case.

According to Walker’s assigned attorney Elliot Wong, he claims that he was “denied the setting under which he performs a quintessential religious exercise, namely a solitary religious ritual, in which he prays to his gods, and subsequently being punished for refusing to yield to his religious beliefs. The religious ritual in this case is referred to as a spiritual circle of Odinist Warding, which is a ritual in which he prays to his gods and communicates with his gods. According to his sincerely held religious beliefs, he draws and activates this circle within his cell and he believes that this circle may be open or breached, by what he believes is spiritual pollution that emanates from individuals of another race.”

Almost immediately, the judges move to the heart of the issue. Is Walker’s request to be celled with only white inmates based on a “sincerely held religious belief” or simply based on racism? As the judge notes, the original filings did not include any mention of this ritual or other specific religious requirements. Wong did admit that these details were left out, but could be included in a new amendment.

The original filing states in part:

the application of the IHP violates plaintiff’s right to the free exercise of his religion protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), his Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment, his Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection and due process, and his Fifth Amendment right to due process. (FAC at 5-6).Plaintiff seeks damages, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief.

As the attending judges note, there was no mention of the ritual. In these original documents, Walker did not address, in concrete terms, the “substantial burden” placed on his free exercise of religion by the presence of “alien spiritual pollution,” as noted in yesterday’s hearing.

After some discussion, Judge Sidney Thomas said, “I gather from the answers to the questions that [Walker] is not willing to amend his complaint to say that he can perform the ritual outside his cell and perform be housed with a non-white inmate.” Wong answered, “I believe that would be correct.”

Rev. Patrick McCollum, who has worked closely with the California prison system for years, said, “In this case, the inmate can still practice his religion in a number of venues besides his cell even if he had an inmate of color in his cell, so his religious rights are not being violated, at least not under the spirit of the law. Also, there is a long history of non-white participation in Nordic religions which has a been around for over a thousand years, and there are Odinist groups in a number of prisons that already welcome people of color, so the racial argument is shaky to begin with. That is not to say that the inmate’s beliefs are not sincere, it’s just that they don’t meet the standard required by law.”

Judge Thomas said, “We are not going to segregate our prisons.” However, this was only a hearing; no final decision was made and no further dates given.

While the specifics of the Walker v. Cates case are focused on race, the situation goes to the heart of a very recent dialog on the boundaries of religious freedom within a defined social structure. It is struggle that is currently plaguing courts and lawmakers. At what point does society substantially burden religious freedom? And, at what point does religious freedom substantially burden society?

In Georgia, Rep. Sam Teasley just proposed to a new RFRA to protect the “rights of people of faith.” In opposition to this bill, a county commissioner  was quoted as saying, “If, for example, a Wiccan believes their religion does not allow them to render any payment to any entity but God, do they have to pay their taxes?” While the tax comment is outlandish, there are many related issues, such as the recent debate over the allowing inmates to have facial hair, when required by their religion.

In terms of Walker v. Cates case, Ryan Smith, co-Founder of Heathens United Against Racism, noted, “The real key point made in this case by the defendant is that the plaintiff has to show these desires are motivated by genuine religious belief and not some other motive.” The plaintiff does have the burden of proof. As noted by the judges in the hearing, Walker has not provided any such proof. In addition, as detailed in the 2011 case text, “[Walker] failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before bringing the instant action recommdations [sic] noted.” In other words, if his concerns were purely based on the practice of religious rites, he had other options.”

McCollum explained, “In current practice in correctional facilities, only a small amount of time is allocated to religious practices for all faiths. This is based on past court rulings that religion must be accommodated by the least restrictive means, while at the same time balancing the manageable operation of the institution. If the Odinist is given a short period of worship time of equal duration to that of other faiths that would be meeting the standard set by law and not violating his rights.”

But Smith doesn’t believe that Walker’s claims are religious at all. He said,”[It is] definitely something but it isn’t religion from where I sit and its history is not religious in nature. I don’t think this case being dismissed would be a problem for the vast majority of Pagan inmates as what the plaintiff is asking for here is not justified by religion but by bigotry and based on what I understand of the issue is seeking an exemption that has never been applied in a religious context.”

McCollum added that he doesn’t believe that the Odinist can win this case. He said, “If the court were to rule in the inmate’s favor to segregate him from other races or faiths for religious reasons, they would also have to segregate the Jews, some Christian traditions, and a number of other faith groups under the same arguments, as many teach in their doctrines or practices, separation by faith or ethnicity also.”

As Judge Thomas said, “We can’t do that.”

Conversations are on-going; for this particular situation and others. Politicians and individuals are continually challenging the boundaries of our rights to practice religion or not. At the same time, the courts wrestle with the test used to determine a “sincerely held” religious belief and how it should be upheld, ignored or negotiated within the established laws and regulations of society.