• January 6, 2017

We’ve recently come across a chilling Sundance TV series, “Rectify,” about a person exonerated after a twenty-year stint on death row (starring Aden Young).

The series’ portrayal of the hardship of prison is heart-rending.

Safety and security are fleeting. Paradoxically privacy is non-existent and total isolation is nearly constant. The burden on the human mind from this degrading and dehumanizing treatment is barely imaginable — or maybe impossible — to imagine.

This came to mind from a recent decision by U.S. District Court Judge Patrick J. Schiltz (D. Minn.) in a civil lawsuit brought by incarcerated men designated as sex offenders in Moose Lake, Minnesota who seek to practice certain rituals of their professed religion: Asatru.

Asatru appears to be a religion that has a following among incarcerated people (see the “security notes” in the linked document describing the faith).

Asatruar Moose Lake in-mates have complained that prison officials:

….have and continue to infringe on Plaintiffs religious rights as follows: (1) Plaintiffs[‘] classification as a sex offender in a high security facility; (2) denial of Asatru fire grate for outside worship area; (3) denial of consumable account use; (4) denial of outside blots; (5) denial of proper religious items; (6) inability to purchase essential Asatru items such as oils, incense, Thor’s Hammer; (7) denial of outside food vendors; (8) the denial of candles of Yule observance; (9) inaccurate writing from MSOP staff in reports on the Asatru groups; (10) denial of barrier around the worship area, due to a high volume of traffic and activities that may disrupt blots; ( 11) denial of cooking pot for blots needed for celebration ceremonies; (12) denial of outside area at night during winter months which greatly hinders scheduling and celebrating bloats [sic]; (13) denying requests for a hlath; and (14) refusal to comply with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq.

In response to the plaintiffs’ complaint, Judge Schiltz, in my view, does a laudable job in taking the plaintiffs’ case  seriously. Lesser people might have been dismissive. They might have sought to make light of convicted sex offenders’ pleas for an “Asatru fire grate outside [the] worship area,” candles for Yule observance, denial of “outside food vendors” not to mention Thor’s hammer (in a maximum security prison), and the like.

But before the law, these plaintiffs are no different from any other people claiming their rights to practice their religions. Judge Schiltz dismissed the plaintiffs’ case “without prejudice” for failing to provide enough detail to support their allegations but his order gave them directions as to the basic requirements they would need to meet to bring a viable complaint.

If a society is measured by how it treats its weakest members, which makes sense to many of us, Judge Schiltz’s ruling is a credit to ours.

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