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Religious Tobacco Protection in Prisons Uncertain

A California appeals court dealt a blow Thursday to a Native American prison inmate who petitioned for the right to use pure tobacco during religious ceremonies.

SAN DIEGO (CN) - A California appeals court dealt a blow Thursday to a Native American prison inmate who petitioned for the right to use pure tobacco during religious ceremonies.

A three-judge panel for California‚Äôs Fourth Appellate Division found that Imperial County Superior Court Judge Raymond Cota improperly ruled in favor of inmate Gregory Rhoades. Cota should have held an evidentiary hearing before handing down his decision, the panel concluded.

Sending the case back to Cota, the panel ordered him to hold a hearing so that both Rhoades and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation can present factual evidence to support their positions. After the hearing, Cota will need to issue another ruling.

"The trial court was required to hold an evidentiary hearing before ruling on the petition, and the trial court erred in not doing so," Associate Justice Terry O'Rourke wrote for the panel in a 25-page opinion.

Rhoades, a Native American incarcerated at Calipatria State Prison, filed petitions for a writ of habeas corpus in Imperial County Superior Court and the state appeals court in March and  April 2015. In both petitions, Rhoades claimed that prison officials denied Native American prisoners the right to practice their religion by banning the use of pure tobacco during religious ceremonies and instead requiring them to use "kinnikinnick," a tobacco-and-herb mixture,  in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

RLUIPA prohibits a state or local government from implementing measures that "substantially" interfere with an incarcerated individual's religious practice unless  it can show that the measure is the least restrictive one possible that will still allow it to maintain its interests.

In this case, the state contends that banning pure tobacco allows it to maintain prison security and minimize inmate health care costs.

Rhoades, however, says the ban prohibits him from making prayer ties, prayer offerings and spirit offerings, which he calls "essential" to Native American religious rites.

"The smoking and offering of tobacco is a central religious ceremony of the Sweat Lodge," he said in his petitions. "The sending of ritual prayers to the Creator with tobacco in the Sweat Lodge ceremony is recognized as a central and principal means by which purification is accomplished."

Rhoades claimed that prison officials at Calipatria continued allowing Native American inmates to use tobacco for 10 years without incident after the state banned its use in prisons in 2004. In 2014, the prison replaced pure tobacco with kinnikinnick.

The state denied that the ban interferes with Rhoades' ability to exercise his religious beliefs.

Nonetheless, Cota ruled in April 2016 that the ban violates RLUIPA, concluding that an evidentiary hearing wasn't necessary because Rhoades had properly alleged the violations.

"The 2014 announcement of the kinnikinnick policy offers no reason for the change at that time, and respondent offers no indication, from a religious standpoint, as to how it is that the kinnikinnick is an appropriate substitute for straight tobacco in the ceremonies," Cota wrote.

However, the appeals court said that because the parties had pleaded conflicting facts about whether the ban interferes with Rhoades's religious beliefs, the issue should not have been decided without a hearing.

"The trial court's order erroneously ignored this factual dispute," O'Rourke wrote. "Instead of holding an evidentiary hearing, the trial court appears to have erroneously relied on our May 22, 2015 order to show cause for its ruling on the merits that respondents' policy against the use of straight tobacco substantially burdens Rhoades's religious exercise."

The panel clarified that its May order to show cause hadn't found that Rhoades had established that the ban interfered with his religion.

Rather, O'Rourke wrote, "We issued the order to show cause because if ultimately proved to be true, those allegations would entitle Rhoades to relief under RLUIPA."

"Our order to show cause was merely a preliminary determination based on the allegations in the petition. It was not a ruling on any of the ultimate issues in this case," he added.

Associate Justices Cynthia Aaron and Gilbert Nares joined the panel.

Rhoades was represented by court-appointed attorney Kevin Smith, the state by Justice Department Attorney Phillip Lindsay. Neither attorney could be reached for comment Thursday.

A Corrections Department spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Religion

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