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Iowa Settles Religious Discrimination Suit Brought by Incarcerated Odinist

On May 31, 2017, the Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC) settled a lawsuit brought by a state prisoner who alleged religious discrimination against Odinists. The settlement included monetary damages and attorney’s fees, both of which were confidential. It also required the DOC to purchase food and beverages for Odinist ceremonial events, and to maintain various Odinist religious items at state prisons.

David Joseph Meister, serving life without parole, filed a pro se federal civil rights action against prison officials and four of the DOC’s contracted religious services coordinators in 2016, alleging discrimination against incarcerated Odinists. The central issue in Meister’s complaint was that Odinists at the Iowa State Correctional Center were not allowed to use the main chapel facility, but instead were required to congregate in their own housing units. This kept them from meeting as a complete group and prevented them from using facilities available at the chapel and some religious items, such as candles, necessary to properly perform their religious rites. Those restrictions were not placed on most Christian groups, but applied to non-Christian groups.

During the course of the litigation, attorney Craig Durham began representing Meister. The defendants’ settlement of the lawsuit included a confidential payment to Meister for damages and his attorney’s fees and costs.

As part of the settlement, the DOC agreed to provide the following Odinist religious items at all state prisons: a Book of Blotar, altar box, altar cloth, candles, candle holder, deity figures, dirt, drinking horn, moot horn, herbs, incense, incense burner/holder, mortar and pestle, oils, oil diffuser ring, oath ring and runes. Prison officials also agreed to permit the purchase of outside food and beverages for Odinist ceremonial feasts from a common fund, and to allow prisoners to share food for ceremonial purposes without being subject to disciplinary action for bartering. See: Meister v. Kempf, U.S.D.C. (D. Idaho), Case No. 1:16-cv-00022-REB.

Lawsuits challenging violations of the Odinist religion by prison officials have been successful in other states, including Indiana, Texas and Utah. [See: PLN, June 2014, p.32; March 2010, p.38; Dec. 2008, p.30]. 


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Related legal case

Meister v. Kempf