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Indiana DOC Policy Banning Group Worship by Odinists Enjoined

by John E. Dannenberg

On June 19, 2008, a U.S. District Court held that the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) failed to meet its burden of proving that a blanket ban on group worship by Odinists was the least restrictive means of maintaining institutional safety and security. The court permanently enjoined IDOC from enforcing such a policy.

Kevin Hummel is incarcerated at IDOC’s Miami Correctional Facility. When he arrived in prison he was a Christian, and for that reason was permitted to live in a religious dormitory under IDOC’s Purposeful Living Units Serve (PLUS) program.

While there he began to study Odinism (also called Asatru), an ancient religion originating in Northern Europe. He announced he was a “one percenter” – a white supremacist – and was removed from the PLUS dorm. Today he denies belief in racial superiority.

Apparently abandoning Christianity, Hummel now practices Odinism. With a modern revival commencing in the early 1970s, Odinism claims to have 100 groups in the United States. Their daily religious activities include prayer, but no weekly observances are required. However, they often meet to study and perform rituals.

IDOC recognizes Odinism as a religion. The prison system’s handbook notes that Odinists worship both individually and as a group. However, IDOC prohibited group worship by Odinists because prison officials associate those practicing Odinism with white supremacists. Seeking to reverse IDOC’s blanket policy, Hummel first exhausted his administrative remedies and then filed suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1 et seq.

Hummel relied heavily upon Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709 (2005), which upheld application of the RLUIPA, to protect Odinists’ religious rights in prison. This put the burden on IDOC to prove that prohibiting all group worship for Odinists was the least restrictive means to maintain prison safety and security.

While safety and security are unquestionably compelling governmental interests, mere speculation that accommodating Odinist group worship would necessarily lead to violence did not carry the day, the court ruled. Specifically, IDOC came up empty when invited by the district court to identify any incidents of such violence.

Hummel suggested four less restrictive alternatives that IDOC could employ. The first was that the Odinist group worship leader could simply read from a pre-approved script. The second was to train IDOC guards on proper religious practices for Odinism. Third was for IDOC to permit pre-approved outside volunteers to come into the prison to lead group ceremonies. Fourth, Hummel noted that thirteen other states, plus the federal prison system, permit group worship by Odinists.

The court found that this provided “persuasive evidence that it should be possible to find a solution that effectively balances prisons’ important security concerns with inmates’ right to be free from substantial burdens on their free exercise of religion.” Indeed, IDOC could not show the court that other prison systems’ solutions were not effective in this regard.

Accordingly, the district court permanently enjoined IDOC from its blanket prohibition of group worship by Odinists, and gave prison officials 60 days to put into effect a new policy with respect to group worship. Hummel was represented by attorneys Gavin Rose and Kenneth Falk of the Indiana ACLU. See: Hummel v. Donahue, 2008 WL 2518268.

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Related legal case

Hummel v. Donahue