A U.S. district judge Thursday struck down a Utah State Prison ban prohibiting Indian inmates from using sweat lodges for religious purposes, ending a two-year legal battle between Indians and the state Corrections Department.
The courtroom, filled to overflowing with Indians supporting the six Indian inmates, burst into applause when Judge Thomas Greene issued his ruling after nearly two hours of arguments.An attorney for the inmates said a sweat lodge could be built on prison grounds in two weeks. The Navajo Nation Corrections Proj-ect said the tribe would take the lead in implementing a Utah sweat lodge program.
Attorneys for the Indian plaintiffs, all inmates at the Utah State Prison in Draper, and for the state attorney general's office were surprised that Greene ruled immediately. But Indian attorneys were nonetheless pleased.
"I'm very happy for the Native American community," said Danny Quintana, representing the six Indian inmates. "I think that Utah now recognizes that constitutional rights belong to all citizens."
Asked if the state would appeal, Chief Deputy Attorney General Joseph Tesch said the judge's decision was unexpected and he could not comment on an appeal.
Tesch said, however, "I can tell you we have a great deal of respect for this judge."
The dispute, which began with a lawsuit filed by Quintana in 1987, boiled down to a battle between what Indians called their right to practice traditional religion and the Correction Department's avowed need for security.
"This case is about the First Amendment and the quality of rights allowed under the U.S. Constitution," Quintana told the judge in opening arguments.
"What we're asking for is no more and no less than what is allowed by the other religions at the prison," he said, explaining the sweat lodge is a structure of willow poles and blankets not unlike a conventional chapel.
Quintana said the sweat lodge, used in 19 other state prison systems, is an effective rehabilitation tool. Leander Bergen, a Navajo Nation attorney, said the recidivism rate of Indian inmates who use sweat lodges is only 7 percent.
Tesch, saying the state fully supports Indian inmates' right to practice traditional religion, said, "the question is whether a sweat lodge creates a less-secure prison system."
Calling the sweat lodge a dark place where inmates could "secret," Tesch argued use of the structure could permit inmates to construct weapons, ingest drugs and attack each other or even guards.
Tesch also said that rehabilitation through use of the sweat lodge "is not a recognized constitutional right."
Greene, in ruling in favor of the inmates, said, "There is no difference between the sweat lodge and the interdenominational chapel already on the prison grounds."
Citing a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case, Turner vs. Safley, Greene said a prison can infringe on an inmate's constitutional right only if there is a reasonable and legitimate penal interest at risk.
"This court holds the prison regulation banning sweat lodges does not bear a reasonable relationship to the legitimate penalogical interests in the state of Utah."
Greene said operating a sweat lodge on prison grounds poses no significant cost, security or safety burden to the state and indeed could provide "positive impact on other inmates" because of its rehabilitative effects.
Lodging a petition
Some 1,500 supporters of Indians at the Utah State Prison Wednesday presented Gov. Norm Bangerter with a petition urging him to eliminate the sweat-lodge ban at the state prison.
Beating a ceremonial drum before entering the Capitol, the group said prisons have a "dismal" record of rehabilitation and that sweat lodges are essential to helping rehabilitate jailed Indians.