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Native American Entitled to Prayer Feather

An Arkansas federal district court has held that a Native American prisoner has a constitutional right to possess or use a prayer feather for religious purposes. This action was brought by Billy Joe Wolf, complaining about acts while he was imprisoned at Arkansas? Benton County Detention Center (BCDC).

Wolf was held in solitary confinement at BCDC on a murder charge. He is certified by the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs to be a member of the Cherokee Nation. His testimony at a court hearing was that he worships alone with the feather in a personal ceremony. Without the feather, he can?t pray to the Great Spirit. The feather can be an eagle, owl or hawk feather. The eagle is the most powerful, and Wolf requested BCDC officials to allow him an eagle feather, which is a foot or one and a half feet long and black tipped.

His request winded its way to Sheriff Keith Ferguson and Captain Hunter Petray. They mulled it over and sought advice of legal counsel.
Ultimately, they refused Wolf?s request on three grounds. First, they believed a prayer feather could be used as a weapon; they submitted it could be used to injure or harm a person in a particularly vulnerable area such as the eye. Second, they believed that allowing Wolf such a personal item in his cell might cause discontent among other prisoners.
Finally, their most ludicrous reason to deny Wolf a prayer feather was that he might use it for ?sexual gratification.?

The Court held that a prayer feather is essential to Wolf?s sincerely held religious beliefs and federal law permits Indians to possess feathers for Indian religious uses. This required the Court to analyze Wolf?s claim under the four prong test of Turner v. Safley, 107 S.Ct. 2254, and the ?substantial burden on the religious exercise? of prisoners under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The defendants? safety and security concerns were found to be an exaggerated response by the Court. Prisoners ?are allowed to possess and keep in their cells pencils, toothbrushes, and other items that can potentially serve as weapons, some perhaps more effective weapons, than a feather.? The Court did not even give merit to or address the sexual gratification claim.

A reasonable alternative to the total feather ban was to give Wolf controlled access to the feather while confined in his cell twenty-three hours a day. This would have no impact on other prisoners, guards, or the allocation of resources. Moreover, because the feather was a religious item, it was doubted it would have caused discontent among prisoners. As such, the defendants could have easily accommodated Wolf?s rights by giving him controlled access to a prayer feather.

Since the Court held all four factors of Turner to be satisfied in Wolf?s favor, it also held he met the more rigid standard under RLUIPA. The Court, however held that it was ?not clearly established? at the time of Wolf?s incarceration that a Native American prisoner had a right to obtain and use a prayer feather, thus entitling the defendants to qualified immunity.

While the Court held Wolf?s right to a prayer feather was denied, it dismissed the claim with prejudice on qualified immunity grounds. See: Wolf v. Ferguson, USDC WD AR, Case No. 04-5177 (2006), 2006 WL 375920 (unpublished).

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Related legal case

Wolf v. Ferguson