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ACLU Joins Huy in Support of Indigenous Prisoners' Religious Freedoms

The ACLU recently joined Huy and Indian country in protesting potential regulations that would hinder indigenous prisoner’s religious freedoms.
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The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation issued a provisional emergency regulation denying indigenous prisoners access to items used in religious ceremonies in February drawing the attention of many human rights groups the latest being the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of California. (Related story: Huy Urges Urgent Action on Indigenous Prisoners’ Religious Freedom)

The ACLU on May 7 joined an inter-tribal coalition, comprised of Huy, a tribally-owned non-profit corporation in Washington state, the Round Valley Indian Tribes, the Pit River Tribe, the National Native American Bar Association, and California Indian Legal Services, in a formal protest of the Department of Corrections regulation. (Related story: Huy: Washington State Non-Profit to Improve Indian Prisoner Ceremonies)

“It is perplexing why the state would advocate for these untenable, unlawful restrictions,” said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. “We certainly understand a prison’s desire to maintain security, but allowing inmates to engage in religious exercises does not pose a security threat; in fact, studies show that it reduces violence.”

"We are thrilled that the ACLU joined forces with Indian country to decry the state of California's violation of indigenous prisoners' human and civil rights to worship in traditional Indian ways," said Gabriel Galanda, Chairman of the Huy Board of Advisors. "Those violations are also now happening in places like Montana, South Dakota and Texas. But those state discriminatory practices are not going unnoticed and they will not stand."

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With the new regulations certain items have been omitted from the proposed list of allowable inmate religious properties, they include: kinnikinnick, sacred pipe, buffalo or deer skull, antlers, drums, leather, and dipper and bucket. These items however are allowed throughout many other states and are recognized by the Federal Bureau of Prisons according to an ACLU press release.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) – a federal law – says the state cannot prevent an inmate’s religious expression without a compelling government interest, and restrictions must be as minimal as possible. The law has even received stronger support by the court system, which has ruled that institutions must provide confined persons even greater protection of religious exercise than what the Constitution affords.

“In addition to our problem with the Correction Department’s overblown fears about security, we believe the stated reasons they give for rewriting the current regulations are disingenuous,” said David Loy, legal director of ACLU of San Diego. “Instead of minimizing discrepancies, confusion, and potential inmate litigation, these new regulations would likely have the opposite effect.”

Reasons given for the restrictions as appeared on the regulation proposals were to minimize discrepancies, confusion, and potential inmate litigation. ACLU however believes implementation of the proposals will have the opposite affect.

ACLU calls on the CDCR to respect RLUIPA’s heightened protection for the religious exercise of institutionalized people and for a revised proposal to avoid the serious burdens currently presented.