Judge: Wiccan inmates have no right to sweat lodges, raw meat
Thursday, March 25, 2010 | 12:09 p.m.
CARSON CITY — A federal judge has ruled that prison inmates have no right to sweat lodges and raw meat to practice the Wiccan religion.
U.S. District Judge Philip Pro rejected the civil rights suit of Scott Fletcher, who claimed the federal law on religious rights of prisoners required the prison to provide such things.
The judge said the prison regulations "do not pose a substantial burden on Fletcher's exercise of his religion or pressure him to abandon his religious beliefs."
Senior Deputy Attorney General Clark Leslie called the ruling a major victory for the state. This decision, he said, establishes the standard for prison regulations and shows they were justified and there was a compelling state interest in adopting them.
Fletcher, when he filed this suit was serving a term for first-degree murder at the High Desert State Prison in Clark County. He was granted parole in January this year.
Judge Pro says he was required to interpret the federal law "in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted" by the law and the Constitution.
He said Fletcher had the initial burden of demonstrating the policy of the prison "constituted a substantial burden on his religious exercise."
The judge noted that Fletcher was still free to practice his Wiccan religion if those requests were denied. He said testimony at the trial showed the construction and operation of a sweat lodge "would pose a threat to the safety and security of both inmates and staff at High Desert State Prison."
There was "unrebutted testimony" that the handling and cooking of raw meat poses a potential health hazards which justify restrictions against its use, the judge said.
Leslie said the judge placed a major emphasis on the security and safety at the prison. But he said there are different rulings in other states and he expects a case over this federal law to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.