MONTGOMERY | A state prison inmate who wanted to build a fire in the prison to practice an ancient polytheistic Nordic religion was turned down by an appeals court Tuesday.
The court ruled that state prison officials did not violate Tony Lee Smith’s religious rights by refusing to allow him special worship space to practice Odinism. The prison had feared a backlash because the religion is said to incorporate white supremacist beliefs.
Smith, then an inmate at Limestone Correctional Facility, sued members of the prison system’s Religious Activities Review Committee, claiming that his constitutional rights and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act had been violated.
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Smith, 38, said in the suit that state prison officials said he couldn’t have certain items connected with the pagan religion of Odinism, namely a pinewood fire in a small pit to observe certain rites, and use of a certain area of the prison for worship.
According to the suit, prison officials instead gave him a candle.
He was denied access to a worship area St. Clair Correctional Facility out of security concerns about potential violence against other inmates and because officials said the religion was a popular front for hate groups, according to the court opinion.
Odinism is defined as a natural religion for northern Europeans that predates Christianity. “Odinism’s theology is grounded in ancient Icelandic sagas and runic mysticism,” the court opinion said.
Three judges on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the district judge who heard the lawsuit correctly granted summary judgment in favor of state officials.
Smith’s attorney, Henry “Hank” Sherrod III of Florence, said the case had been assigned to him by the court.
“It has a lot of interesting issues and I got a lot of assistance from groups that work for religious freedom,” he said.
Sherrod said Smith had never been a white supremacist.
“He’s never been accused of having any difficulty associated with violence with minorities, doing anything associated with any alleged concern,” Sherrod said.
The Rev. Steve Walker, a prison system chaplain and the religious director for the Department of Corrections, was one of the officials sued by Smith. He would not discuss the case in detail, but said the state recognizes about 15 religions.
He could not say whether the three or four inmates at St. Clair Correctional Facility who practice Odinism were white supremacists, but said the religion has been associated with white supremacy.
“We have very few Odinism adherents,” he said.
Walker said the prison system’s responsibility in weighing religious requests is to balance security, control and rehabilitation.
“Members don’t get everything they want,” he said. “We ask inmates … to provide documentation why he wants to do this and is it necessary.”