Tobacco for Imprisoned Native Americans Upheld

     ST. LOUIS (CN) - Native American prison inmates in South Dakota have the right to use tobacco for religious ceremonies, the 8th Circuit ruled.
     The Native American Council of Tribes and two inmates, Blaine Brings Plenty and Clayton Creek, sued the South Dakota Department of Corrections in 2009. The plaintiffs claimed that a ban on tobacco in state prisons substantially burdens their religious beliefs in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).
     A federal judge in Sioux Falls enjoined the ban, but the parties failed to agree on a more lenient policy. The court then entered a remedial order that instituted a 1 percent cap on the proportion of tobacco in the ceremonial mixture distributed to Native American inmates for religious purposes.
     The South Dakota DOC appealed the injunction, but a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit affirmed Friday.
     "In opposition, the defendants contend that the tobacco ban cannot substantially burden the inmates' religious exercise because tobacco can be replaced by red willow bark - a readily-available traditional alternative to tobacco," Judge Myron Bright wrote for the court. "We reject the defendants' invitation to define the contours of the inmates' religious beliefs. By claiming that tobacco can be easily replaced by red willow bark, the defendants urge us to weigh the importance of tobacco vis-à-vis other substances in the Lakota religion. As the amicus United States observes, this type of inquiry into what is or is not central to a particular religion has no place in an RLUIPA analysis."
     The appeals court also rejected the South Dakota DOC's argument that the remedial order was overly broad and violated the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).
     "After a thorough review of the record and the arguments presented by the defendants, we conclude that the scope of the district court's remedial order extends no further than necessary to remedy the violation of inmates' rights under RLUIPA," Bright wrote. "In fashioning the remedial order, the district court carefully balanced the need to fairly accommodate inmates' exercise of their religion, taking into account the parties' proposed remedies, while giving due 'weight to any adverse impact on public safety or the operation of a criminal justice system' that may result from a change in tobacco policy."
     Judges Kermit Bye and Lavenski Smith concurred with Bright.