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Sweat Lodge May Be in Kentucky Prison’s Future

(CN) - Death-row inmates in Kentucky may deserve access to a sweat lodge and buffalo meat to perform American Indian religious ceremonies, the 6th Circuit ruled.

Two groups of death-row inmates filed suit against prison officials under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act for approval of their requests to practice their American Indian faith, and for clergy visits. A federal judge in Paducah sided with the officials, however, after finding that the inmates did not support their claims.

Three of the inmates - Robert Foley, Roger Epperson and Vincent Stopher - claimed that prison officials improperly denied them access to a sweat lodge and refused to provide traditional foods for their religious ceremonies.

The deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Corrections meanwhile claimed in an affidavit that security concerns prevent placement of a sweat lodge in a prison.

Questioning the support for that concern, a three-judge panel with the 6th Circuit reversed the summary judgment decision Friday.

"Is this a complete answer?" Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote for a three-member panel in Cincinnati. "Would not a security camera solve the problem, as the inmates point out? How do prison staff monitor inmates in other discreet settings such as a shower facility, as the inmates also point out?"

Many other states give American Indian inmates access to sweat lodges, Sutton found.

"Yet, for reasons of their own, the prison officials never studied how these accommodation worked and whether they posed serious security risks or whether the prisons found ways to alleviate these risks," the ruling states.

Though the warden claimed that giving the inmates access to a sweat lodge "would be a first," Sutton deemed that concern insufficient to deny the inmates their request.

"When Congress offers new free-exercise protections from the state for their citizens, as it did in enacting RLUIPA in 2000, it should come as no surprise that the state cannot deny an accommodation request on the ground that the request is ... new," Sutton wrote.

The inmates' request for buffalo meat is reasonable as well, the court found.

"Legally, and more critically, neither RLUIPA nor for that matter the First Amendment permits governments or courts to inquire into the centrality to a faith of certain religious practices-dignifying some, disapproving others," Sutton wrote. "RLUIPA protects a broad spectrum of sincerely held religious beliefs, including practices that non-adherents might consider unorthodox, unreasonable or not 'central to' a recognized belief system."

The act "does not permit a prison warden to deny a Catholic inmate access to wine for a communion service on the ground that grape juice is a reasonable substitute or to deny grape juice to a Presbyterian inmate on the ground that water is a reasonable substitute," Sutton added.

Though two other death-row inmates in the action - Randy Haight and Gregory Wilson - had sought access to visiting clergy members, the lower court never reached the merits of that claim because Kentucky changed its visitation policy while the lawsuit was pending, allowing members of the clergy to visit more than one inmate at a time and appear on multiple visitation lists. The court also denied the inmates' request for money damages.

Sutton found that the denial of money damages was proper.

"Every circuit to consider the question ... has held that RLUIPA does not permit money damages against state prison officials, even when the lawsuit targets the defendants in their individual capacities," Sutton wrote.

U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland, sitting on the panel by designation from Detroit, joined in the ruling as did Chief Judge R. Jay Cole Jr., who also concurred separately.

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