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Wiccan Prisoner Wins Injunction to Wear Medallion; Case Settles on Remand

by David M. Reutter

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held an Illinois prisoner was entitled to a preliminary injunction permitting him to possess and wear a religious medallion.

Gilbert Knowles, incarcerated at the Pontiac Correctional Center, brought suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and moved for a preliminary injunction to allow him to wear a religious pendant called a “pentacle medallion” – a five-pointed star set in a circle less than an inch in diameter.

The district court denied the motion, finding Knowles “had not clearly demonstrated that he lacked an adequate remedy at law, did not face ‘irreparable harm’ (because he was being denied ‘only one aspect of his ability to practice his religion while his litigation is pending’), and was asking for injunctive relief that would require the defendants to act, rather than just preserving the status quo.”

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit held that courts have recognized “The Church of Wicca occupies a place in the lives of its members parallel to that of more conventional religions.” Knowles asserted a belief that the pentacle medallion protects his body and spirit against “harm, evil entities, and negative energy.” The medallion was small enough to comply with prison regulations regarding jewelry worn by prisoners

Prison officials initially allowed Knowles to receive a medallion but confiscated it the next day. The warden contended DOC policy prohibits prisoners from possessing “five and six point star symbols” because they can be used as gang identifiers; the policy is intended to protect prisoners from violence by rival gangs.

The Seventh Circuit noted that Knowles was “willing to wear his medallion under his shirt whenever he’s outside his cell to protect himself from being identified as a gang member.” The warden contended other prisoners may see it while he is showering, though nothing in the record supported that conclusion.

“There isn’t even evidence that the plaintiff ever wears his medallion in the shower, or that the wearing of a pentacle medallion, whether openly or under one’s shirt, by any prisoner at Pontiac has ever caused a problem,” the appellate court wrote.

Knowles submitted an affidavit from another prisoner who prevailed in a lawsuit to prevent the confiscation of his pentacle medallion. The Seventh Circuit held he had demonstrated his entitlement to a preliminary injunction, reversed the district court and remanded for further proceedings. See: Knowles v. Pfister, 829 F.3d 516 (7th Cir. 2016).

Following remand, the case settled in December 2016; according to the settlement, prison officials agreed to pay $965 to cover Knowles’ costs and fees related to the litigation. Further, he will be allowed to “wear his pentacle medallion ... on a chain around the neck. During any time when he is outside of his assigned cell, [he] shall keep the pentacle medallion under his shirt. When he is inside his cell, however, [he] may wear the pentacle medallion outside of his shirt.” 


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