SALT LAKE CITY — Inmate Phillip Leishman has sued state Corrections Department officials for prohibiting him from having wooden tablets bearing mystical symbols — runes that he says are used in the practice of his pagan religion.
Corrections officials contend the runes could be used for magical rituals to frighten other inmates.
U.S. District Magistrate Sam Alba has recommended that Leishman get a hearing on his argument that the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act supports his right to runes.
The federal law prohibits prison officials from imposing a substantial burden on the religious exercise of an inmate unless it is to further a compelling government interest, and it is done in the least restrictive way possible.
Leishman, who killed two men and is serving life in prison with possibility of parole, said in court papers that he is a follower of a branch of Asatru, a pagan religion of pre-Christian northern Europeans.
In 2001, he sued Department of Corrections officials after they prohibited him from having a rune set in his maximum-security cell.
The runes are characters of Teutonic alphabets that were used for ordinary communication, but also were attached to deities and were and are used for practicing magic and divination.
Prison officials have said runes are not essential to practice Asatru and the ban promotes prison safety.
The tablets could be used for fortunetelling, possibly causing inmates to attack fellow prisoners they believe have cast a spell on them, officials claim.
In addition, prisoners could use the tablets to secretly communicate and to gamble, they said.
But Alba said in a May 27 report there is no evidence the runes could help inmates use the runic alphabet to talk to each other.
He said that while an Asatru spell might offend another inmate, “an evangelical Christian inmate could just as easily offend others with their prophecies and preaching.”
The magistrate said the set could be used for gambling but that prison officials have failed to show a total ban on runes is the least restrictive way to avoid the problem.
Alba’s recommendation has been forwarded to U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell, who will determine whether to hear the case.
Leishman, 26, pleaded guilty in 1998 to two counts of capital murder in shooting two men in January 1997.
The shootings were at the request of a teen-age friend who was angry over the theft of her car and asked him to “put the hurt” on the suspects. The victims had not stolen the vehicle.