SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The U.S. Department of Justice is supporting Native American inmates in their lawsuit challenging South Dakota's ban on tobacco in religious ceremonies.

Inmates Blaine Brings Plenty and Clayton Creek in their 2009 federal lawsuit against the South Dakota Department of Corrections contend that a prison policy that bans the use of tobacco during religious ceremonies is discriminatory.

The state said ceremonial tobacco inside the state penitentiary was becoming increasingly abused, and the policy is not overly restrictive because it allows other botanicals such as red willow bark to be burned.

The Justice Department, in a brief filed last week, said the state's position runs contrary to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

"The court should decline this invitation to determine the importance of tobacco use to practitioners of Native American religions," the Justice Department attorneys wrote. "Accordingly, the court should also reject defendants' argument that they have not placed a substantial burden on plaintiffs' religious exercise."

The South Dakota prison system went tobacco-free in 2000 but made an exception for tobacco used in Native American ceremonies. But officials in October 2009 eliminated that exemption, saying tobacco was being sold or bartered and inmates had been caught separating it from their pipe mixtures and prayer ties.