DOC settles lawsuit with Cherokee inmate, agrees to change policy
After a nearly three-year legal process, Brian Hall will be allowed to use a bear claw pendant and various bandannas to practice his religion while incarcerated.
Hall filed a lawsuit in August 2016, after his request to have the items was denied. The suit ended up in federal court, where the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska represented him.
According to a news release from the ACLU of Alaska, Hall made several requests to use the items under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Alaska Constitution, but the agency denied him on "vague" grounds that the items could pose a safety risk.
"Mr. Hall's religious practices call for him to wear a bear claw pendant around his neck and a bandanna around his head that signifies the direction of his particular spiritual path. The bandanna could be one of six different colors or contain one of six different symbols depending on the direction he is called to move," the release explained.
The original request was for a full-sized bear claw and solid colored bandannas, according to DOC standards administrator Jeremy Hough.
"Our concern there was, obviously, the bear claw is designed by nature to maim and kill," Hough explained. "And then with the bandannas, there were some concerns, maybe not that Mr. Hall was necessarily in a gang, but that if you’re wearing gang colors, you yourself may put yourself in a position that you’re gonna be assaulted or something like that by somebody who is a validated gang member."
Joshua Decker, the executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, said they claimed a legal victory by presenting photos of items that other incarcerated people are allowed to have, including crucifixes, Stars of David and nail clippers — items he believes are just as sharp or sharper than the bear claw.
"The Department of Corrections did not have a narrow, least restrictive reason to deny Brian his bear claw, and because of that we were able to win the case," said Decker.
In the settlement, the DOC agreed to allow Hall to have a bear claw pendant reduced to an inch and a half in length with a dulled point.
According to the ACLU of Alaska, the settlement also included agreements that the DOC would do the following:
- Although DOC does not generally allow prisoners to wear or possess bear claw pendants, Hall will be provided such a pendant and allowed wear it and allowed to posses and wear on his head at any time one of six differently colored bandannas, as religious accommodations under RLUIPA.
- Adopt a policy within 30 days stating that:
- Any request for future religious accommodations by prisoners will be evaluated in accordance with RLUIPA.
- DOC will not deny these requests because the accommodation does not accord with the generally held tenets of the religion with which the accommodation is associated.
- If DOC denies any request, it will make reasonable efforts, in collaboration with the person requesting the accommodation, to determine if the denial is the least restrictive way to accomplish DOC's interest or whether some other form of accommodation can be provided.
- Pay the ACLU of Alaska $30,000 in legal fees.
"We won not just for Brian Hall, but we also changed the state's policies so that now everyone should be able to practice their religion freely and not be denied that constitutional First Amendment right just based on vague, unsupported assertions by the State of Alaska," Decker said.
Hough is also hopeful about the new policy, that it will allow the DOC to find solutions to similar issues faster in the future and avoid another years-long legal process.
"We've created a situation where we can open up a dialogue with the resident and then start to find out really, where's that line," he said.
Hough says the DOC currently accommodates more than 30 religions.
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