Judge denies Utah inmate some Norse religious items

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Utah prisoner did not have a First Amendment right to possess a metal or wooden medallion, a sword and other items central to the ancient Nordic religion of Odinism or Asatru, a federal district court has ruled.

Michael Polk, incarcerated since 2005 by the Utah Department of Corrections, sued prison officials after they denied him many items associated with his religion. He claimed that these included a book called the Edda, a metal or wooden Thor’s Hammer medallion, wooden runes, a mead horn, a Sahs sword and other items.

Citing security concerns, prison officials denied Polk’s requests. For example, they said metal or wooden objects could be used for weapons or to block doors or break locks.

On May 18 U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell granted summary judgment to the prison officials in Polk v. Patterson. Campbell applied the legal standard from the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court’s Turner v. Safley decision, which provides that prison officials do not violate inmates’ First Amendment rights if their actions are reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns, such as security or rehabilitation.

Campbell first addressed Polk’s claim that prison officials violated the First Amendment by denying him a copy of the Edda, a book of Norse mythology used in the religion. The judge credited prison officials’ testimony that — contrary to Polk’s assertions — he could buy a copy through the prison commissary and thus was not prohibited from having the text.

“Plaintiff has not presented any legal support for his contention that prison officials have an affirmative obligation to provide inmates with religious literature of their choosing free of charge,” Campbell wrote.

The judge next addressed the claim for a Thor’s Hammer medallion made of metal or wood. The medallion is considered an object of protection, fertility and new life. Prison officials argued that a metal or wooden medallion could be used as or easily transformed into a weapon. Accepting this view, Judge Campbell said prison officials provided a reasonable alternative by giving Polk the right to have a plastic medallion.

Polk also contended that he had a right to a set of wooden runes or inscriptions, a wooden bowl, a wooden drum, a Gandr (rune staff) and a wooden oath ring. The prison showed, however, that it had a complete ban on wooden items because in the past inmates had used them to jam cell doors and circumvent locks. The prison allowed inmates practicing Odinism to have rune cards instead of wooden runes and a plastic bowl instead of a wooden one. The judge also noted that prison officials could prohibit Polk from having a wooden drum for the additional reason that the prison had a flat ban on musical instruments.

Campbell then addressed Polk’s request for a mead horn, a communal drinking horn used to partake of mead, an alcoholic beverage drunk during religious rituals. The judge noted that both alcohol and fruit juice were prohibited in the prison – fruit juice because it can be fermented to produce alcohol.

The judge also addressed Polk’s claim for a Sahs sword, used for swearing holy oaths. Polk argued that he at least should have the right to a cardboard sword. Prison officials countered that cardboard was a prohibited material because inmates had used it to circumvent locks and hide contraband. They also said they would provide a cardboard sword for group worship if the sword was stored by prison officials after the service.

The judge concluded that Polk failed to show a violation of his First Amendment rights for any of the denials.

“Instead, with regard to each of the items identified by Plaintiff, the record shows a valid, rational connection exists between the restrictions on Plaintiff’s religious exercise and the promotion of institutional safety and security,” Campbell concluded.

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