Calling the state's offer to build Indian inmates a transparent sweat lodge tantamount to offering Catholics "chocolate chip cookies" for communion, the ACLU joined Thursday in the Utah State Prison sweat lodge case.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah announced it will file a "friend of the court" brief in a federal court case aimed at forcing the Utah State Prison to permit religious ceremonies inside traditional sweat lodges.U.S. District Judge Thomas Greene has taken the case, filed on behalf of six Native American inmates in 1987, under advisement after inmate attorney Danny Quintana asked the court for a summary judgment in the inmate's favor.
The Department of Corrections, under Director Gary DeLand, recently offered a compromise to the inmates in the form of a windowed, mechanically heated, sweat lodge built "to allow constant observation."
Sweat lodges are traditionally built of willow poles and blankets and heated with rocks warmed in an open fire. The six or seven participants in religious ceremonies can't be seen from outside.
"A sweat lodge . . . built with windows and mechanical heating elements is as offensive to adherents of the Native American religions as would the suggestion be that Catholics substitute chocolate chip cookies for (communion) wafers," said Acting ACLU Director Michele Parish-Pixler.
The ACLU's support in the case is on First Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion, ACLU cooperating Attorney Michael O'Brien said.
"The ACLU is an organization founded on protecting Constitutional civil liberties . . . (such as) the freedom of the Native Ameican prisoners to practice their religion during their incarceration," O'Brien said.
"The Utah State Prison has made worship facilities available to members of other religous groups," Parish-Pixler said. "Native Americans are asking for the right to practice their religion as well."
The ACLU filed their supporting brief nearly two years after the case was filed. "We have been aware of the case for a long time and decided on our own this is the kind of case the ACLU should be involved in," O'Brien said.
DeLand argued in court documents permitting religious ceremonies inside sweat lodges poses security risks on a number of grounds, including mixing "inmates of different security classifications" inside the structure.
"Our positions on that is that 19 other prisons have found this particular type of facility to be very manageable and in fact corrections officials from those areas have found (sweat lodges) actually have a beneficial affect," O'Brien said.
"I think it's very clear that there's one thing our prisons should perhaps be encouraging very much. It's participation in religious services . . . I think that's what this case is all about," he said.