BANGOR (Feb 19): A Native American group comprised of prison inmates is suing Maine State Prison Warden Jeffrey Merrill, among other prison officials, for refusing to permit the group reasonable accommodations to practice its religion.
The group, Sacred Feather, has 27 members and was formed in December 1998. It filed a similar lawsuit against Merrill in May 2003, but the case was dismissed seven months later in December of that year. According to the most recent lawsuit, the 2003 case was dismissed and attorneys for the Maine Department of Corrections and Sacred Feather entered into a settlement agreement, which expired, as stipulated, on Dec. 23, 2005.
Since that time, Sacred Feather alleges it has attempted to retain "religious freedom" and "quality of religious practices" afforded other religious faith inmate groups, to no avail.
One of the things that has not been in keeping with fair treatment, according to Sacred Feather, has been the requirement that smudging ceremonies take place in a location described as a high-traffic area of the prison grounds.
In a smudging ceremony, sacred tobacco and sweet grass are burned in a ceremonial smudge bowl. Then, as group members stand in a circle in prayer, the resulting smoke is blown onto each member's face and body with an eagle feather.
Holding the smudging ceremony between buildings in a heavily traveled part of the prison's outdoor yard results in "many onlookers and derogatory comments made both from passing non-Native American inmates and from prison guards," claims Sacred Feather.
In the court document, Sacred Feather states that its Native American members are entitled to practice their religion with dignity and with accommodations equal to those afforded to Catholic and Protestant groups. Sacred Feather alleges that continues to not be the case at Maine State Prison.
Sacred Feather points to the prison's provision of a chapel where Catholics and Protestants can privately practice their religions and of office space and funds to purchase office supplies and other items needed to practice their religious faith.
"Catholics are provided weekly services, their own priest, inmate clerks and the ability to take Communion every week," states the court document. "Candles are burned during the weekly services, and holidays of special religious significance, like Christmas, Easter and Ash Wednesday, are also fully observed and accommodated at the prison."
Sacred Feather also alleges that accommodations are provided for Protestant Kairos groups in the prison but not for the Native American group. One example cited is the prison's provision of a space for the inmate Protestant group and an outside Protestant group to conduct their Kairos ceremony, for which the prison also provides, without charge, extra guards to monitor the large group.
Sacred Feather alleges that prison officials have failed to provide religious items agreed to when the group first formed in 1998, including a medicine bag, drums, eagle feathers, sweet grass, a sacred pipe, tobacco ties, sage, cedar and a smudge bowl.
Sacred Feather further alleges that prison officials have canceled smudging ceremonies more than 18 times since 2003 and have not provided a shelter for smudging ceremonies held in inclement weather.
"Reasons for the cancellations range from 'No officers are available' or 'We are not feeling like it,'" states Sacred Feather in the court document.
And despite earlier agreeing to continue to communicate about whether it is possible to erect a sweat lodge for sweat lodge ceremonies, prison officials have been reluctant to communicate about resolving the issue, alleges Sacred Feather.
"Prison officials have also denied the plaintiffs powwows, ceremonial foods and ceremonial music," states Sacred Feather in the court document. "Though the defendants plan, prepare and pay for ceremonial foods of Christian religions at major Christian holidays, no such accommodation is made for Native American festivals or holy days."
Sacred Feather is demanding that the court find in its favor in terms of it being entitled to the same level of accommodation and dignity as inmates practicing Christian religions.
Sacred Feather is seeking the right to hold twice-weekly smudging ceremonies and twice-monthly pipe ceremonies, in a location that provides privacy and does not subject the ceremonies to cancellation due to inclement weather. It also seeks permission to construct a sweat lodge, and to hold sweat-lodge ceremonies at least monthly.
Sacred Feather also seeks to have its members be allowed to retain religious items in their prison cells in order to practice their religion daily, as well as entitlement to a proportionate share of the funds provided to other religious groups at the prison.
Along with requiring that Merrill issue a directive to his staff prohibiting any form of retaliation against members of the group, Sacred Feather also asks the court to issue an order permanently prohibiting prison officials from engaging in any of the conduct alleged in the complaint.
In addition to costs and fees associated with filing the lawsuit, Sacred Feather also seeks unspecified damages to compensate for the violation of its constitutional rights, and asks that the court award damages in an amount Sacred Feather would have received for religious purposes dating back to Dec. 16, 1998, equivalent to the amounts received by the other religious prison groups during that same period.