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New Jersey Settles Prisoners Freedom of Religion Suit

New Jersey Settles Prisoners Freedom of Religion Suit

On November 14, 2005, the state of New Jersey settled a prisoners civil rights lawsuit by paying him $2,000 and allowing him to practice the Wicca religion and to receive related literature and artifacts.

Patrick Pantusco converted to the Wicca religion while imprisoned at the East Jersey State Prison. On January 26, 2002, Pantusco requested that his religion of record be changed to Wicca. Because Wicca was not recognized on the computer system, the classification department changed his religion to other.

Over the next 15 months Pantusco attempted to order various books and religious artifacts, including a pentacle necklace, a prayer cloth, scented oils and herbs, a small bell and flute, and ritual powder, but his requests and delivery of the material was routinely denied. Officials noted, among other things, that Wicca was not a recognized religion.

After various attempts to resolve the issue through the prisons grievance procedures, Pantusco was informed on April 10, 2003, that he would be allowed to possess Wiccan literature but not religious artifacts.

Pantusco subsequently sued prison officials alleging claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and state law. Pantusco specifically claimed the prison policy violated his right to freedom of religion and denied him equal protection under the law. Pantusco noted that some New Jersey prisons allowed prisoners to practice the Wicca religion and to possess Wiccan artifacts.

Following the commencement of his lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, the state agreed to settle by allowing Pantusco to practice his religion and to receive Wiccan literature and artifacts pursuant to N.J.A.C. 10A:17-5.1 and 5.12. The state also agreed to pay Pantusco $2,000, inclusive of attorney fees and costs.

Pantusco was represented by attorney Stephen M. Latimer of the Hackensack, New Jersey, law firm Loughlin & Latimer on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. See: Pantusco v. Moore, USDC D NJ, Case No. 03-182 (KSH).

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